"Right now, I just feel like going out there and hanging myself on the nearest tree."
-- Al Jensen, Jan. 10, 1985
"Al Jensen may be done."
-- Bryan Murray, Feb. 5, 1985
Less than a year has passed since those two statements were uttered, and a simple operation to ease an abnormally thick fibrous band on Al Jensen's left knee apparently has brought the Washington Capitals' goaltender back from the depths of frustration to the ranks of the National Hockey League's elite.
Two years ago, before back and knee injuries bedeviled him, Jensen was the NHL's best goaltender, chosen to start for the Prince of Wales Conference in the 1984 NHL All-Star Game. Coach Bryan Murray thinks Jensen, who has won seven straight and is undefeated in his last 11 starts, has regained his all-star form.
"Al has played extremely well, and I think he's back at the same level he was two years ago, when he was the best in the league and got hurt," Murray said. "He's giving us the kind of goaltending we need to win in the playoffs, the thing that's been lacking the last three years when Billy Smith did the job for the Islanders."
Asked whether he felt he was back to the form of two seasons ago, Jensen hedged a bit and then hinted that he might be even better, although the ultramodest goalie is unlikely to come out and say so in this lifetime.
"It's hard to judge, but I feel good and with the experience I've had and the way I watch other goaltenders, I'm learning more," Jensen said. "Maybe it's all coming together.
"I have been successful this year, but that's because of the style of the team. My teammates give me confidence the way they clear the puck in front of me and let me see the shots. You have to have confidence to be a goaltender.
"I was so frustrated last year. Nobody likes to get injured, and when nobody could seem to tell me what was wrong, I got upset. But I've tried to put that behind me and build on yesterday. Hopefully, nothing like that will ever happen to me again."
If Jensen's teammates have allowed him to see opponents' shots, he certainly has seen a lot of them. Four times this season, the Capitals have faced more than 36 shots. Each time, Jensen has been in the nets and each time he has been a winner.
The 41 shots at Quebec Sunday were the most against Washington in 14 months, yet he stopped 36 for a 7-5 victory. He won at Edmonton Wednesday, 5-2, facing 40 shots; prevailed at Pittsburgh by 4-1 on Nov. 6 despite 39 shots, and won in Chicago, 4-2, on Oct. 27, withstanding 39 shots.
Jensen has faced an average of 32.4 shots per 60 minutes and has compiled a 2.82 goals-against average that ranks second in the NHL. By contrast, Pat Riggin faced 26 per game and had a 3.74 mark before he was traded and Pete Peeters has faced 29.7 per game with a 3.10 record.
Murray has no explanation for the disparity, and the strict rotation he has followed since Peeters arrived was not geared to make it easier for the newcomer or harder for Jensen. After all, who would expect New Jersey to get 36 shots in a game, as it did in a 6-2 loss to Jensen on Nov. 30?
The answer may be that the Capitals tend to open up offensively a bit more with Jensen in the nets, knowing they can depend on him to make the big save if they are caught up ice.
Perhaps the most striking change in Jensen has been his relaxed attitude. It may be the biggest contribution Peeters has made; unlike Riggin, he has gone out of his way to be friendly with Jensen.
They chat in airports, knock the puck back and forth during lulls in practice. After Jensen stopped Edmonton, Peeters told a reporter, "They're waiting outside to arrest Al; they call that stealing."
If Riggin said anything nice to or about Jensen during his three-plus seasons here, it has been lost to posterity. To Riggin, Jensen was as much a rival as the other team; to Peeters, he is a partner. Jensen and Peeters compliment and complement each other.
"Al has really come out of himself since Pete arrived," Murray said. "Pete's been great. He's always giving Al a pat on the back.
"Al is much looser and he's had some pressure taken off him, not because he won't be challenged for the No. 1 spot, but because he and Pete communicate so well and there's a good feeling between them.
"Al and Pat Riggin both wanted to be No. 1 and it was an adversary situation. The goaltenders are approaching it differently now, with obviously very different results. Bad goaltending cost us some early games. We haven't lost many lately."
Since Riggin was traded for Peeters on Nov. 14, the Capitals have been beaten only twice in 16 games.
Although Jensen will not say a bad word about Riggin or anyone else on the globe, he does not hesitate to say nice things about Peeters.
"It helps me having Pete here," Jensen said. "Pete's easy to get along with and we give each other support. He's a quality goaltender and by watching him I can learn a few things, too.
"I am more relaxed now. There were times in the past when I was uptight. Maybe that's where experience comes in. A few years ago, if I gave up a goal, it would bother me. But I've learned it's not the end of the world. You can't take it back. You have to be ready to stop the next one and keep your team in the game."