It will be comeback time once again for Washington Capitals goaltender Al Jensen when the New Jersey Devils visit Capital Centre tonight at 7:30.
Jensen, who underwent arthroscopic surgery Feb. 7 to ease an abnormally thick fibrous band on his left knee, proclaimed himself ready and eager to return to the net.
"I feel good and I feel confident," he said. "I've tried all the game situations the last two practices and now I'm anxious to get in a game. I feel that once I get going I can help the team. I'll certainly do the best I can. I haven't played for a while, but I know what I have to do.
"I'm glad (Coach) Bryan (Murray) still has confidence in me. I don't know what he has planned for me, but I'm going to get myself ready to help in any way I can."
Murray knows that if Jensen can regain his league-leading form of the first half of last season, the Capitals will be in much better shape for the playoffs.
"There's no doubt we have to get a second guy involved and ready to make a contribution," Murray said. "We've got to take some of the work load off Pat Riggin. Pat still isn't 100 percent healthwise (after becoming ill in New York last week) and if something should happen to him, we have to have a guy ready.
"With (Bob) Mason playing in Binghamton and Al playing here, we should be all right."
Warren Strelow, the Capitals' goaltender coach, was pleased with Jensen's effort in yesterday's practice.
"He's making progress and he's better every day," Strelow said. "He's been working extremely hard. Sunday, he started going down and he went down with no problems.
"His reflexes are good and he looks sharp. Physically, he's fine. He has good quickness and good movement. The big thing is preparing himself mentally to play, and he's preparing himself."
Jensen's soap-opera story is a familiar one by now. He was the NHL's best goalie until he hurt his back lifting weights 14 months ago. Since then, he has been bedeviled by injuries to his back and knee.
Jensen has played just five games this season, going 3-1-1 with a goals-against mark of 3.15. His only start since mid-November came in St. Louis Jan. 9, when he played very well in a 4-2 victory but encountered the knee problems that led to the arthroscopy.
Jensen was involved in one of several incidents at yesterday's practice at Capital Centre that indicated the extent of the strain created by a battle for first place in the Patrick Division, which the Capitals lead by four points over Philadelphia. The teams meet in a home-and-home series Thursday and Friday.
Jensen was dumped into the net by Dave Christian after using his stick on Christian. The two exchanged words on a couple of occasions thereafter.
Riggin, who was angered by publication of details of his practice fight with Mike Gartner earlier this season, shouted to a reporter to take note of the Jensen incident, despite its comparatively harmless nature.
Riggin, although excused from Sunday's practice, looked tired yesterday. He has started 12 straight games, and Strelow said, "Pat is fatigued and we've got to hope that Al can come through and ease the load down the stretch."
Bob Carpenter and Larry Murphy verbally abused each other during the session. Murray probably used the strongest language of all when he chastised several players for leaning on the boards and chatting while he was issuing instructions.
"We've got some big games coming up and I wanted them to be a little sharper and a little more accomplished," Murray said. "Maybe they've heard it a few times, but I want them alert. This is a big week and the Devils game counts two points, just like the games with Philly.
"There's a danger of looking past the Devils, but the fact that we lost to them last time and the way they've played us every time should be motivating factors. We're aware of their ability and work habits."
In case the Capitals needed a reminder, the Devils' 5-2 victory over the Flyers Sunday undoubtedly provided it.
That ended a six-game losing streak for New Jersey, which trails the New York Rangers by five points in the battle for the final Patrick playoff spot.