Although he is too much of a team player to ever admit it, much of the credit for the Washington Capitals' turnaround must go to goaltender Al Jensen. His confident, aggressive play in the last three games enabled him to better his old personal and club record for consecutive shutout minutes, and sent the Capitals on a mini-winning streak after their dreadful 0-7 start.
"He's looking more confident each time, playing just excellent hockey," said Coach Bryan Murray after Jensen had shut out Pittsburgh and New Jersey on successive nights. "No question, Al's been a big part of it." The back-to-back shutouts in Pittsburgh and New Jersey were a first for any goalie in a Capitals uniform.
But Jensen shakes his head when anyone suggests he has a starring role in the comeback. "It's because they (his teammates) are playing just super in front of me. It's been a lot more fun. They've let me see all the shots coming, and I've been tested sometimes, but I've had it relatively easy."
Jensen finds the enjoyment gradually returning to the Capitals' play. "For me, it's always fun to play, but the way we're going--all the guys getting into the game--well, I just love playing like this."
"Like this" is a welcome change from the season's beginning. After the losses began piling up, defenseman Rod Langway was convinced "a good road trip" was needed to pull the club out of its doldrums and into a tightly woven unit again. "Being with the guys on the road, with meals together and just spending more time together, gradually gets you to feeling more like a team," he said then.
Wednesday night, after the Capitals had finished a 2-0 victory over the New Jersey Devils, Langway reiterated his theory.
"Now we're working as a team," he said. "In three games, we've given up one goal (to Philadelphia, in the first victory of Washington's three-game winning streak) and it's at a point where we're turning things around."
Langway agreed that "Jenny has been just super for us," but after the Pittsburgh game, he had not been particularly pleased with the club's overall effort, calling it inconsistent at best.
"We won, but we were doing stupid things, like too many giveaways," he said. "Too slow to shoot the puck too many times, and maybe 95 percent of the guys were carrying the load. But this team needs everybody working hard all the time."
With victories over Patrick Division rivals New Jersey and Pittsburgh, the Capitals can breathe a little easier and carry a touch more confidence into the latter part of their five-game road trip, which continues in Minnesota on Saturday.
"Pittsburgh and New Jersey are teams we have to beat because we see so much of them," Murray said. "We're in a dogfight for a playoff spot, and every time we meet them, it's a four-point game. Defensively, we are becoming a lot more confident and stronger. And when we get a break, we go for it now."
The Capitals' offense has hardly dominated, but, Murray said, "Hopefully, the strategy of going for a break when we can will work for a period of time until we get this whole thing turned around and start getting some real offense going."
The breaks have been enough to get the Capitals a pair of victories.
"They still give you two points (for a win) even if you only get one goal," said Mike Gartner, whose first-period goal in Pittsburgh secured victory that night; a power play shot by Alan Haworth would have been enough to defeat New Jersey (1-8-0).
Dave Christian added to the offensive output Wednesday with his first goal of the year.