There was only one candidate for the No. 1 star tonight. Al Jensen turned in one of the memorable goaltending efforts in Washington Capitals history as he blocked 38 shots in a 4-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"He won the game," said Coach Bryan Murray. "They had quality chances and they outplayed us. On this occasion, Pittsburgh deserved a lot better fate, but Al Jensen wouldn't let them win."
Jensen gave the Capitals a lift on a night when defenseman Scott Stevens and center Bob Carpenter departed early with injuries. Neither injury was believed serious, Stevens suffering a bruised muscle near his right knee and Carpenter aggravating a bruised right hand.
The Capitals scored three times on the power play, with Dave Christian breaking a 1-1 tie in the second period to extend his goal-scoring streak to five games. Alan Haworth trumped that with a third-period insurance goal to stretch his streak to seven, longest in the NHL this season.
In between, Larry Murphy scored a sensational goal, one that took the fight out of the frustrated Penguins. With 12 minutes left in the game and Jensen dodging shots like crazy, Murphy took the puck in the left-wing circle and worked his way past Mario Lemieux and Moe Mantha with head fakes before depositing the puck in the net.
Magnifying Murphy's achievement was the fact that only Tuesday he had returned from a week's layoff with a broken left foot. With Stevens forced out early in the second period and Yves Beaudoin dispatched to Binghamton, Murphy saw a tremendous amount of ice time.
"I felt good, windwise, but the wheels weren't too good," Murphy said. "I just couldn't skate very fast. I couldn't believe that goal myself. I think both of them were waiting for me to make a pass across the crease."
Haworth admitted he was thinking about his streak when he went on the ice after Pittsburgh's Craig Simpson had been penalized for boarding with 9:58 remaining in the game. Stationed in the slot, Haworth took Gary Sampson's pass out of the right-wing corner and drove the puck past goalie Roberto Romano.
"I seriously was thinking about it on the bench," Haworth said. "I've never had anything like this before and, with the score 3-1, I knew we had the game. I just thought, 'Well, here goes.'
"Tonight was a hard night. My legs felt heavy and I didn't have good wind. It was a mucker's game. Nothing was beautiful."
It looked downright ugly early in the second period when Stevens, after taking a shot that Romano blocked, reached for the rebound near the Pittsburgh net, was thrown off balance and crashed into the boards. He had to be helped off and at first there was fear he had joined Rod Langway in the serious-injury category.
"I was reaching for the puck and I was only three feet from the boards when I was pushed from behind," Stevens said. "My shoulders and my knee seemed to hit the boards together.
"I don't know what happened, because it happened so quickly, but I must have hit pretty hard. I'm glad it's just the muscle."
Bengt Gustafsson scored the only goal of the first period, off a Craig Laughlin setup. The Capitals' lines were makeshift, for the most part, with Carpenter seeing so little ice time, and the Penguins gradually took control of the play.
In the last 36 minutes, Pittsburgh outshot Washington, 33-12. Yet the only time the Penguins beat Jensen was on a second-period power play, as Terry Ruskowski rebounded a shot by Lemieux.
After it was tied, Jensen stopped breakaways by both former Capital Jim McGeough, who left later with a bruised left knee, and Mike Blaisdell, besides reaching far out to glove a drive by Doug Bodger that left the Penguin shaking his head.
"I had McGeough lined up from the blueline and I tried to get him to deke me," Jensen said. "Fortunately, he went the right way and I laid my stick out and knocked it away. Blaisdell deked me and he went the same way as McGeough. I stuck my leg out and it hit my pad and went over the net.
"They got a lot of shots on a couple of power plays, but the guys allowed me to see a lot of those shots and I got my pad or glove on a couple I didn't really see until the last second."
Instead of the pressing Penguins, it was Christian who broke the tie, five seconds after Mantha went off for holding. Gustafsson outdrew Dave Hannan in the left-wing circle and Christian wheeled into the slot and put a 35-footer past Romano.
Lemieux hit a post before Murphy's goal eased the pressure and Washington was able to extend its unbeaten streak against Pittsburgh to 14 games. The loss prevented the Penguins from posting their 500th victory since they entered the NHL in 1967. Since this was their 1,431st game, one can imagine that Pittsburgh fans have suffered through many nights worse than this one.