In case there were any doubters, Al Jensen is back. Finally given a chance to face a good team after a diet of patsies, the injury-plagued goaltender blocked 30 shots last night at Capital Centre in leading the Washington Capitals past the Montreal Canadiens, 3-1.
It was Jensen's fourth start since returning from arthroscopic surgery on his left knee and he has permitted only three goals in winning all four.
This, however, was a big test. The Canadiens, buoyed by their 3-2 victory over Washington at the Forum Thursday night, came out flying and flailing, and Jensen was forced to make six saves in the first 2 1/2 minutes.
That challenge thwarted, the Capitals gave the sellout crowd of 18,130 a lot to cheer about. Goals by Mark Taylor, Rod Langway and Bengt Gustafsson resulted in a 3-0 lead before Jensen lost his bid for the shutout when former Capital Ryan Walter put in a goal with 5:33 remaining.
The sellout was the eighth of the season at Capital Centre, double the previous high, and pushed attendance to a record 502,420 with four home games remaining. The Capitals' best previous season was 1982-83, when the final figure was 495,050.
Washington moved within six points of first-place Philadelphia in the Patrick Division. The Canadiens, winless in their last 11 trips here over six years, remained tied for the Adams Division lead with Quebec.
For much of the game, the action on the ice resembled the return of the Friday night fights. There were five battles involving major penalties and a couple of others that could have been so regarded.
When Bryan Murray called time with four seconds left, the Canadiens reacted angrily. Chris Nilan, who has had more than one verbal duel with Murray through the years, popped the Washington coach on the head with a well-aimed water bottle.
When play ended, Murray confronted Montreal Coach Jacques Lemaire and accused him of throwing it. With the teams once again forced to criss-cross as they left the ice, there seemed a reasonable chance of a donnybrook like the one with Philadelphia, but referee Andy Van Hellemond steered the teams and coaches off the ice.
Asked about the timeout, Murray said, "Rod Langway and Scott Stevens were hardly able to stand up and I wanted to leave those two out on the ice. They could have gotten a shot off. I didn't want them to score."
On the same subject, Lemaire said, "I didn't like it. I wouldn't call a timeout with four seconds left if I'm ahead by two goals. I've never seen two goals in four seconds."
Asked about Murray and the water bottle, Nilan smiled and said, "I've got to take the fifth. But Murray's always like that. He sits on the bench and yaps at the players. It's good for a coach to be involved, but you shouldn't yap at the other team's players. You should sit down and let the players play the game. I guess he's just a frustrated athlete."
The Canadiens were frustrated by their inability to put a puck past Jensen until the game was out of reach. The way Washington scored its goals hardly eased their feelings. If the Canadiens enjoyed good bounces Thursday, the roll of the puck evened up last night.
Taylor's first goal as a Capital opened the scoring and it was remarkably similar to Guy Carbonneau's game winner for Montreal Thursday. Taylor flipped a pass toward Greg Adams in the slot and defenseman Tom Kurvers, in trying to knock the puck away, deflected it into his own net.
"I said to myself, 'That's great,' " said Stevens, who had steered Carbonneau's pass into the Washington goal the night before.
It became 2-0 on a 50-footer by Langway off the right pad of goalie Steve Penney, who was screened by a battle in front between Bob Gould and Montreal defender Chris Chelios.
Langway was set up by Doug Jarvis' long pass out from the goal line, except that Jarvis actually was aiming for Gould in the slot.
"I saw Gouldie, but his stick was lifted and the puck got by," Jarvis said. "I never saw Rod. It's funny sometimes how these things go."
Gustafsson's goal followed one of the many fights. Adams had ridden Petr Svoboda into the boards behind the Montreal net, punching him in the process, but the incident went unnoticed by Van Hellemond, because play was at the other end.
After Washington's Peter Andersson was whistled for holding and play stopped, Nilan attacked Adams as a surrogate for Svoboda. The resulting penalties, a major to Nilan and minors to Andersson and Adams, gave Montreal a four-on-three for two minutes, then Washington a five-on-four for three minutes.
Jensen made four saves during the Canadiens' power play, including point-blank stops on Bobby Smith and Mats Naslund. Then, during Washington's extra-man opportunity, Stevens mis-hit the puck from the left point and blooped it high in the air. Montreal defenseman Rick Green batted at it and missed before it landed and slid to Gustafsson near the right post. He scored easily.
"It was a drop ball," Stevens said. "I was embarrassed. I saw Gus the whole time and I meant to get it to him, but I guess the puck was on end and I didn't realize it. That's the funniest assist I ever got."
"It rolled right to my feet; thank you," said Gustafsson. "But it took a long time before the puck got there."
Although Walter spoiled Jensen's shutout bid, he could not spoil Jensen's feeling of satisfaction.
"I felt good out there," Jensen said. "This was a stepping stone for me. I felt confident and I was just trying to work hard and play my game. There was a little more work than usual, but most of the time the guys let me see the shots, and that's the big thing. Montreal came out hard, but after that it settled down."
Jensen lowered his goals-against average for his badly split 10-game season to 2.24 and, with alert, challenging play, left Murray with some decisions to make. Pat Riggin, who had carried the team since October, is winless in six March starts.