If Pat Riggin is to retain the Jennings Trophy, he must receive help from an unlikely trio of allies -- the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Montreal Canadiens and Washington Capitals teammate Al Jensen.
A year ago Riggin and Jensen shared the Jennings Trophy, awarded to the goaltenders playing 25 or more games for the team allowing the fewest goals in the National Hockey League.
Injuries have limited Jensen's playing time this season, so Riggin has a chance to become the first goalie to win the award by himself since Montreal's Ken Dryden in 1976 -- despite the fact that his goals-against mark of 2.97 is high for the Capitals, behind Jensen's 2.42 and Bob Mason's 2.81.
Washington has two games remaining, both against Pittsburgh. The teams play in Pittsburgh Saturday, then end the regular season at Capital Centre Sunday at 5 p.m. Buffalo, which has allowed 230 goals to Washington's 233, finishes with games at Toronto Saturday and home against Montreal Sunday.
With Tom Barrasso sidelined by a leg infection, the Sabres' Jennings Trophy hopes rest on Bob Sauve. Jensen will be in the Washington goal Saturday, with Sunday's assignment as yet undetermined.
Riggin, after playing superbly through February, has not won a game in five weeks. In his last eight starts -- seven losses and a no-decision -- he has permitted 30 goals.
Jensen has won six of his seven starts since recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, allowing only 12 goals. A strong effort by Jensen against Pittsburgh not only could help Riggin win the Jennings, it could cost Riggin a starting role when the Capitals open the playoffs Wednesday against the New York Islanders.
"Al Jensen is playing tomorrow and we'll make a decision on Sunday after that game," said Coach Bryan Murray. "Maybe they'll each play half, although I don't want to go that route.
"In the playoffs, we'll use whoever's going well. We'll try to be smart about it and lean the right way at the right time. Regardless, both have to be ready and both can make a contribution."
Murray makes the decisions on his starting goaltenders after discussions with Warren Strelow, the Capitals' assistant coach who works with the goalies.
Strelow assisted Herb Brooks with the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, and it was his recommendation that Brooks stick with Jim Craig. As Brooks' aide for six seasons at the University of Minnesota, Strelow was involved in three NCAA championships, and in each case the tournament MVP was a goaltender -- Tom Moore, Brad Shelstad and Steve Janaszak.
The Capitals hired Strelow on a one-year experimental basis in 1983. When Riggin and Jensen took the Jennings, ranked 1-3 in the NHL and had their best career records by far, he was given a two-year extension.
"Our goaltenders have gotten attention that is often overlooked in hockey," said General Manager David Poile. "Most coaches in preparation for a game discuss forechecking and coming out of our end, but never the techniques of goaltending.
"Warren not only works on improving our goaltenders, he also points out the strengths and weaknesses of opposing goaltenders. He works with all the goaltenders in our system and evaluates draftable goaltenders. But the big thing is that the goaltenders need a friend, and he's it. Coaches and managers evaluate goaltenders on wins or losses with little analysis. Warren is somebody they can confide in who can relate to the position."
Said Jensen, "He sees my bad habits and points them out, little things that you wouldn't notice but that make all the difference. And he goes over every goal -- constructive criticism, things that can only make you better.
"His positive thinking has helped my game and made me feel confident. He helps in practice a lot, too, with drills that work on areas where I'm not quite as strong as I could be."
Strelow, a goaltender at Minnesota and with the 1956 Olympic team, feels that Riggin and Jensen are underrated, because of Washington's emphasis on defensive play.
"A goalie coach is something new, and there aren't very many," Strelow said. "I experience the same feelings as the goaltender. I have a good feeling when they play well and I share the down side. The goalies often bear the brunt of mistakes made in front of them.
"Our goalies can't have a goals-against record like that if they haven't done the job. They have a good team to play for, because the whole team is defense oriented and the forwards and defensemen help out and take away the good shots in our end of the rink.
"But it is a stressful position and sometimes the goalies with Washington are criticized because they don't face as many shots as other teams. What people forget is that we don't score that much and we have a lot of one-goal games, so each shot is more critical than with some other team."
Jacques Plante, one of the NHL's first goaltender coaches, encountered resistance in Philadelphia because he tried to rebuild the goalies in his own image. Strelow emphasizes that he applies polish to what already is there.
"I don't want to pick apart the goaltender," Strelow said. "I just try to catch problems before they develop into something serious. There are certain little things only a coach concentrating on the goalies can see.
"A goaltender is like a house. Where it's built on a good foundation, you build a goalie on good fundamentals. We do varying drills in practice -- drills for movement, reaction drills and game-situation drills. The idea is to do things every day until they become second nature.
"In the past, practices centered around shooting and breakouts and special-teams situations. The goalie was just there as a target. That has changed, and I think the results indicate it's for the better."