BUFFALO — As his consistency and confidence have increased, Washington Capitals defenseman Nick Jensen is finally starting to hit his stride. Over the past few weeks, the 29-year-old has been one of the team’s steadiest blue-liners.
“Consistency is just one thing players strive for,” Jensen said. “The season is long. It’s a marathon. You’re going to go through ups and downs. It’s about minimizing the downs and maximizing those ups.”
In the Capitals’ 5-2 win Saturday at Pittsburgh, he saw 20:11 of ice time and had an assist, his second in as many games. This season has included some rough patches for Jensen, whom Capitals Coach Todd Reirden has repeatedly called “a work in progress,” but the coaching staff is trusting him in more situations.
“The consistency for me is really important,” Reirden said. “I think we’ve seen more consistency from him recently. Obviously he’s gotten a few more points as of late on some really nice plays, and for me it’s that consistency of defending and thinking about keeping the puck out of our net first. And when we have an opportunity to make a play, let’s make a play.”
Against the Penguins, Jensen had the primary assist on Richard Panik’s goal, which gave the Capitals a 3-0 lead late in the first period. He followed that up midway through the third by shaking off Penguins winger Jason Zucker at the blue line and breaking free before passing to Jakub Vrana for a good scoring chance. Jensen finished with a team-high four blocked shots and added three hits.
Jensen partially chalked up his recent improvement to playing with more confidence than he had earlier in the season. He also said he has been able to play in the offensive zone more over the past few weeks, which has helped him grow that part of his game.
“Sometimes throughout the season you are just going through stretches where you are handling the puck and it feels like you forgot how to play hockey, and that is just the way the sport goes,” he said. “ … I’ve gone through that before, and you got to find a way to [persevere] through it."
When you focus solely on avoiding mistakes, Jensen added, it’s hard to play the game — and it’s more difficult to flip that switch than people think.
“It’s your subconscious,” he said. “It’s your natural feeling. You can’t help it. That goes in the confidence category.”
Jensen’s improvement has had an impact up and down the blue line. If he can be relied upon to play 20-plus minutes, his spot next to Dmitry Orlov on the Capitals’ second defensive pairing could be solidified come the postseason. Replacing Radko Gudas, Michal Kempny has been in the lineup for the past two games, skating with Jonas Siegenthaler on the third unit, with Brenden Dillon still accompanying John Carlson on the top pair.
As Reirden continues to seek the six defensemen he trusts most, Jensen’s progress is a good sign.
“There is no secret to playing with confidence,” Jensen said. “You build off it and build off it and build off it, and the better and better you play, the more confident you feel, and you keep building off those games.”