It would take a tie breaker worthy of the National Football League's playoff selection to determine the identity of the Washington Capitals' best goaltender.
After 73 games, Al Jensen and Pat Riggin have reached a plateau. In all three of the major statistical areas used to measure a goaltender's value, Jensen and Riggin are exactly the same.
Each has permitted 3.34 goals per game; each has stopped 88.3 percent of the shots fired in his direction; each has won twice as many games as he has lost, with the slightly busier Jensen 20-10-6 and Riggin 16-8-7.
Coach Bryan Murray says he has a plan on how to utilize his goalies in the upcoming playoff series against the New York Islanders. He has declined to divulge it, however, which is perhaps just as well. If Riggin continues to play the way he has in the last two games, allowing one goal in Boston and two in Philadelphia, he may force Murray to change that plan.
There is reason to believe that Murray intends to use Jensen as his No. 1 goalie against the Islanders, since he has started Jensen against them five straight times.
In the first three meetings, Jensen was sensational, allowing only five goals as the Capitals won twice and tied the other. The last two times out have been disastrous, however, with Jensen picked apart for 14 goals in a pair of one-sided defeats.
Riggin, beaten, 6-3, in October in his only start against the Islanders, was certainly Murray's No. 2 man in mid-January. After he was blitzed for nine goals by Los Angeles, boosting his goals-against average to 4.03, Riggin was given two weeks of rest.
Since that time, he has recorded a 2.33 goals-against mark while winning nine games, tying two and losing well-played decisions to Montreal and Edmonton.
While Riggin has steadily lowered his goals-against figure, Jensen's mark has been rising to meet him. Although Murray has continued to display his confidence in Jensen, the goalie has been unable to regain his sensational form of December, when he successively limited Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and the Islanders to one goal and briefly led NHL goaltenders with a 2.43 goals against.
Over his last eight starts, Jensen has a 4-4 record, while allowing 4.96 goals a game.
Besides his recent heroics, an added point in Riggin's favor is his playoff experience. Riggin played 11 postseason games for Calgary two years ago, when the Flames reached the Stanley Cup semifinals, and three more last season.
While Jensen has no Stanley Cup credentials, he has helped two teams to lesser titles, the Hamilton Fincups to the 1976 Memorial Cup and the Adirondack Red Wings to the 1981 Calder Cup.
For the immediate future, Murray said that Riggin would start Wednesday's home game against Vancouver, with Jensen assured of at least one start as the Capitals play four games in five days.
Down the stretch, whatever he decides, Murray seems likely to receive the cooperation of both goalies, who have gotten along well together. The only time either lobbied for an assignment was in February, when Riggin sought and was granted the start in Calgary, where he beat his old teammates to clinch a playoff berth for Washington.
"I'm grateful that I've had a chance to prove once again that I can play in this league," Riggin said. "The way the team played against Boston and Philadelphia made it easy for me. Both were tight-checking games and they certainly proved we can win one-goal hockey games."
"The way Pat is playing, he deserves to start," Jensen said. "I'll continue to work as hard as I can in practice and when Bryan tells me to play, I'll work as hard as I can in the games."
The attitude of both is in marked contrast to the situation with the three other Patrick Division playoff teams.
On Long Island, Roland Melanson passed the word that he considered himself the No. 1 goalie off his superior statistics (22-12-5, 2.69 to Bill Smith's (16-12-7, 2.91), although Smith, as a key figure in three Stanley Cup triumphs, figures to start the series against Washington.
In Philadelphia, the golden rookies of January and February, Pelle Lindbergh and Bob Froese, have taken some recent shellackings while Bunny Larocque practices and picks up a fat paycheck. There is no love lost between Lindbergh and Froese, who reportedly exchanged punches as farmhands at Maine.
The New York Rangers have four goaltenders on the roster and players have suggested in the press that it is time for Coach Herb Brooks to stick with one. The likely candidate is Glen Hanlon, who stymied the Flyers and Islanders last week, but Brooks reverted to Ed Mio for Sunday's 4-0 loss to Boston.