Remember Al Jensen? He was the National Hockey League's top goaltender and the leading vote getter for the Prince of Wales Conference team in last season's All-Star Game, then he injured his back lifting weights in January.
Since then, he has played only six full games for the Capitals. Just one of them has come this fall, a 5-3 victory over Los Angeles Oct. 16. The rest of the time, Jensen has been hindered by a tendon problem in his knee, incurred during an exhibition game at Minnesota Oct. 2.
Capital Centre fans will be reintroduced to Jensen tonight. A giveaway mirror contains his likeness, along with the team's other award winners of a year ago. Then, birdcage in place, Jensen hopes to remind them of his all-star form when he tends goal against the New Jersey Devils at 7:30.
"I feel really good; nothing bothered me at all today," Jensen said after yesterday's practice at Mount Vernon. "On Wednesday I figured I was about 85 percent. I'm 100 percent now."
Bob Carpenter would not dispute that assessment. During one rush yesterday, Carpenter took three close-range shots in rapid-fire order. Jensen scrambled to block them all.
Jensen's habit of bearing down in all practice sessions figures to help him, since he obviously lacks game sharpness. "I haven't played for a while, but I try to push myself in practice," he said. "I put myself in game situations and try to be as prepared as possible.
"Tomorrow I'm just going to try to be as ready as I can and be as aggressive as possible. I know what I have to do. I always try to improve myself every game. I know this time it's going to be tough, but I keep myself in shape and I'm ready mentally."
Jensen is keeping the possibility of injury as far from his thoughts as possible. His great season of 1983-84 was interrupted after a mishap lifting weights on an off day. He still is not sure what happened in Minnesota.
"I felt something at the beginning of the game, when they didn't even have a shot yet," Jensen recalled. "It didn't really bother me the rest of the night (he was a 5-3 winner), but the next morning it hurt quite a bit.
"I wish I knew what happened, but maybe it's better that I don't know. At least, I won't change my game trying to avoid it happening again."
Jensen has had greater success against the Devils than any other team, with seven victories and a tie in eight decisions. That dominance -- and Washington's overall 11-0-3 mark against New Jersey -- has not affected Jensen's preparation.
"I don't even think about who we're playing," he said. "I play them all like it's the last game of the year. I don't care if it's Edmonton or New Jersey. New Jersey is a good hockey team. They're no pushover."
Coach Bryan Murray was glad Jensen was healthy enough to play, after Pat Riggin worked eight of the first nine games.
"We want to get him started and if we left it another week, playing the Rangers or Edmonton would be a tough start," Murray said. "Of course, New Jersey got 41 shots against Pittsburgh and I'm told they're playing pretty well."
As he did Wednesday against Calgary, Murray plans to stick basically with three lines. That means Bryan Erickson will shift between a couple of units and Paul Gardner and Jim McGeough will see limited duty in specialized situations.
"The next few games, I'm going to give our better people more ice time," Murray said. "I'm going to be a little more demanding on guys to get ice time, not something automatic every fourth shift. Of course, having (Bengt) Gustafsson and (Gaetan) Duchesne out is part of the reason."
Murray was pleased with yesterday's practice, which turned out to be a rough one. Craig Laughlin and Gary Sampson took some heavy spills and Dave Shand was cut at the edge of the left eye by a stick.