The Washington Capitals were given a day off today, to enjoy some fun in sunless southern California before heading for the doubtful hospitality of Long Island, Montreal, Philadelphia and Buffalo.
"I wanted them to have one day off out here, but I didn't have any reason to until last night," said Coach Bryan Murray, whose pallid complexion at least was restored to normal color by the Capitals' 4-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings Saturday night.
The most satisfying aspect of the success was the superb goaltending of Al Jensen, who stopped 23 shots in his first appearance since he twisted a knee Feb. 2.
In the four games he played before that minor injury, Jensen yielded 20 goals. Although the team's sluggish play was a major factor, Jensen had not been coming up with the big saves that helped the Capitals through some rough spots earlier in the season.
On Saturday, he made those stops from the opening minute, when Bryan Erickson skated in on a breakaway and Jensen reacted quickly to thwart him. A goal on the Kings' first shot might have resulted in a vastly different finish, with that 8-1 disaster in Pittsburgh still on many players' minds.
"Sometimes a good shot like that right at the start is good to get you in the game, particularly if you haven't played for a while," Jensen said. "It's good as long as you stop it, anyway."
Before the night was over, Jensen had helped his teammates over the consequences of several breakdowns, the kind that had proven costly in recent weeks. He foiled Len Hachborn after a giveaway in the Washington end and dove out to hook the puck off Sean McKenna's stick on a breakaway.
Perhaps Jensen's best save came late in the first period, when he gloved a Marcel Dionne shot from 10 feet away at the finish of a three-on-one.
"He's beaten me a couple of times, so it was nice to stop him," Jensen said.
The fact that Jensen was so sharp after his layoff could be traced to some demanding practice sessions choreographed by Warren Strelow, Washington's goaltending coach.
"I tried to work on fundamentals in practice and get ready as best I could," Jensen said. "I worked on standing up a little more and challenging the shooters. I'd kind of gotten away from it."
Jensen had some good luck, too. When he came out to challenge Tiger Williams and blocked the shot, Dave Taylor pounced on the rebound and fired the puck into a seemingly open net. However, Dionne had slipped behind Jensen and the puck struck his chest and bounced harmlessly away.
"I was in no-man's land, so I just waited for him to make a move," Jensen said. "But he had me beat. I thought the puck was in, then I realized it must have hit their player."
On another occasion, a drive from the right point by Erickson leaked through Jensen's pads. He turned and tried to dive on it, but the puck was loose in the crease for several seconds. Bernie Nicholls tried to hit it, then was knocked down and lay alongside the puck. He could have pushed it in with his glove, but knowing it wouldn't count, watched helplessly while Jensen finally smothered it.
"He had two whacks at it, but he just couldn't get it," Jensen said. "It was just a couple of inches from going in. Then it got knocked back out, hit somebody's skate and went under me. It did everything but go into the net."
The luckless Taylor had another shot at an open net when the puck bounced off the rear boards and past Jensen. Somehow, Taylor fired it wide.
"It was good to get our goaltending back to where Al was early on," Murray said. "He made some good stops, but more important, he was in position and he was upright most of the time."
Jensen was not upright at all times. In the second period, he was knocked into the net by Phil Sykes. Bob Carpenter flattened Sykes, J.P. Kelly leveled Carpenter and soon virtually every player on the ice was jammed inside the goal. Referee Kerry Fraser solved the extrication problem neatly. He and the linesmen lifted the net off the horde of players.
"I was all right, but I was lying down in the back hoping somebody wouldn't step on me," Jensen said. "Carpsy was holding the guy (Sykes) and he took advantage of it to dump me. I didn't even see it, because I was following the puck."
Jensen, the thinking man's goalie, held an unusual conference with defenseman Kevin Hatcher in the first period, which was broken up by Fraser.
"We were just communicating on screen shots," Jensen said. "The play before, he'd screened me and sometimes a player out there doesn't know he's screening the goalie, so I wanted to straighten it out. It didn't slow the game up much."
It took a mere tick of the clock, compared to the disentanglement that followed Sykes' timely shove.