VANCOUVER — It wasn’t the Russian everyone was watching Friday who beat the Vancouver Canucks.
The guy getting booed, Alex Ovechkin, didn’t score. The guy largely ignored, Evgeny Kuznetsov, had a hat trick as the Washington Capitals blew a third-period lead before rallying to beat the Canucks 4-3 in overtime on an electric night at Rogers Arena.
Ovechkin’s history of support for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and limited comments on his country’s invasion of Ukraine has, rightfully, received as much attention the last two weeks as his record of scoring goals in the National Hockey League.
But with a chance to make history on Friday by moving alone into third place in NHL goals, Ovechkin was blanked on six shots that included a pair of partial breakaways against Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko.
Demko wasn’t as effective on Lars Eller’s breakaway 42 seconds into overtime as the Capital rattled a shot under the goalie to deprive the Canucks of a second point after Vancouver rallied from a two-goal deficit early in the third period to lead 3-2.
Kuznetsov’s third goal of the night had tied the game with 4:53 remaining in the third period when the Canucks’ Elias Pettersson’s goalmouth clearance during a contentious Washington power play hit the Russian, then glanced back off the Swede before the Capital forced it across the goal line.
And that wasn’t even Kuznetsov’s luckiest bounce of the night as he opened the scoring at 5:34 of the first period when Nick Jensen’s rim-around the Canucks’ zone hit a stanchion in the glass behind Demko, bounced straight into the slot and ricocheted in off Kuznetsov.
His second goal, on a power play just 43 seconds later, was swept across the goal line after Ovechkin’s famous one-timer overpowered Demko and looked like it might spin into the net.
Ovechkin remains at 766 goals, tied with Jaromir Jagr, who wore No. 68 in the NHL for 24 seasons as a tribute to the Prague Spring of 1968, when democratic reforms in what was then Czechoslovakia were stamped out by the Soviet Union under a previous Russian dictator.
Ovechkin’s record chase added another compelling layer to the game, which was watched in-person by the largest Rogers Arena crowd, 18,814, since the pandemic began two years ago.
“You always have that in the back of your mind,” Canucks captain Bo Horvat said of Ovechkin’s perch on history. “You’ve got to be aware when he’s out there all the time. Obviously, the goals speak for themselves. His ability to score goals, I mean, I don’t think it’s been seen ever in this league. Thankfully, (although) we didn’t keep him off the scoresheet, but we kept him from scoring tonight.”
Ovechkin finished with one assist. The Canucks had to be satisfied with denying him a goal and earning a point after the Capitals’ early 2-0 lead stood until the third period.
The Canucks swarmed the Capitals early in the final frame, dominating consecutive shifts in the offensive zone and pumping in three goals in four minutes to eradicate the deficit.
Vancouver defenceman Quinn Hughes, whose consistent excellence has been a little overshadowed lately by the historic scoring surge of J.T. Miller, drove the comeback with a goal and two assists amid a mesmerizing display of agility and puck possession.
Hughes cut the deficit in half 57 seconds into the third period, skating the puck to the middle of the blue line, waiting for traffic to develop and slinging a screened wrist shot past the glove side of Washington goalie Vitek Vanecek.
The Canucks tied it 2-2 on a power play at 3:19 when Miller took the puck from Hughes in the left-wing circle, faked a pass across the goalmouth and dropped it into the slot to Horvat, who quickly lasered a shot into the top corner.
Two shifts later, Horvat put his team in the lead, calmly gathering the rebound from Travis Hamonic’s one-timer and steering it past Vanecek at 4:59.
If you didn’t already know it was the largest crowd since the coronavirus arrived, it was evident in the thunderous, unmasked roar that greeted the Canucks’ go-ahead goal.
“To have everybody in the building, it was rocking tonight,” Horvat said. “Friday night, packed building like that and coming back, the building was electric tonight. It’s too bad we couldn’t get it all the way done for them.
“We’re happy to… fight back there in the third. But ultimately we wanted those two points. All the points from here on out are going to be huge for us, and I thought it was great character by us to come all the way back and get that point. It’s just unfortunate that we couldn’t have gotten the job done.”
Kuznetsov tied it 3-3 after Vancouver defenceman Tyler Myers, who is six-foot-eight, was penalized for a hit to the head on Kuznetsov. Myers was standing up, and finished with his back to Kuznetsov. It looked a dodgy call but, to be fair, so was the tripping penalty to Eller that preceded Horvat’s power-play goal.
The point at least allowed the Canucks, desperately chasing a playoff spot in the Western Conference, to maintain some momentum in the standings. Two games into a seven-game homestand, they are 8-2-1 in their last 11 contests and two points out of a playoff spot.
“I just think we have that belief,” Horvat said. “We have that belief in our room that we can beat any team and we’ve shown that, and we’ve shown resiliency when we’re down. I think it’s just us growing as a group and growing as a team that we didn’t have at the beginning of the year. We’re playing for each other in there and that’s all that matters. We want everybody to succeed and we’re happy when everybody’s doing well and when the team is doing well, so we want to keep that feeling going.”
With two assists, Miller extended his points streak to 11 games.
The Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning visits the Canucks on Sunday.