With his family waiting outside the Washington Capitals’ dressing room, some of them holding gifts that had been given out hours earlier to celebrate his place as the NHL’s No. 2 goal scorer of all time, Alex Ovechkin sat at his locker stall and tried to make sense of his team’s 7-6 overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday night. His undershirt was torn. His gray hair was still doused in sweat. Then Ovechkin pondered a question: Was this meltdown, in which the Capitals blew an early three-goal lead and then a late two-goal advantage, made all the more disappointing because of the ceremony that honored him before the game?
“Yeah, it’s kind of ...” he said, shaking his head and searching for the right words. “You don’t want to lose a game. Tonight was special day for me, for the whole organization, for fans. And, unfortunately, we lost.”
The performance encapsulated so much of this difficult season: While the Capitals have made a priority of keeping a competitive team around Ovechkin and supporting the 37-year-old in his chase of Wayne Gretzky’s record, they remain a team in transition and capable of a collapse even on a night designed to honor their captain.
Mathematically, Washington has not been eliminated from playoff contention. But with 10 games remaining, the end felt close Tuesday night after Columbus, which arrived with the NHL’s worst record, stormed back from a 5-3 deficit in the third period, tied the score in the final minute and then won at 2:43 of overtime on a goal by Jack Roslovic. That left the fans in Capital One Arena, many of them clutching Ovechkin bobbleheads given out earlier in the night, in a hushed silence.
“We got to win a hockey game. We scored six goals,” Coach Peter Laviolette said.
Every Capitals player donned a No. 8 sweater during warmups to honor the captain, but only one could wear it once the puck dropped. Ovechkin throttled down the right side of the ice on an early shift and positioned himself for another milestone. He slung the puck across the crease to center Dylan Strome, but when a Blue Jackets defenseman inadvertently knocked the puck into the net, the game’s first goal belonged to the night’s guest of honor.
His early goal was No. 820 in his career, leaving him 74 behind Gretzky. But it also marked the 13th time Ovechkin had scored at least 40 goals in a season, which moved him past Gretzky for the most ever.
The festive setting seemed to galvanize the Capitals early — they scored three times in the first 16 minutes and five times in the first 40. Laviolette had promised a better first period after his team had surrendered the first goal in five straight games — “We’re going to have a better start; write it down,” he said — and he didn’t have to eat his words after Ovechkin was credited with a goal at 5:12 and T.J. Oshie made it 2-0 at 8:10. By the time Conor Sheary snapped a 21-game goal drought with four minutes left in the period, Washington had a 3-0 lead.
But the parade ended there. Laviolette could predict a solid start, but he could not have imagined how Tuesday would end. The Blue Jackets pulled within one after goals by Eric Robinson and Adam Boqvist, the second of which came at 6:57 of the second period and stirred the Capitals from their slumber.
“For 10 minutes in the second period, we kind of stopped playing and gave them an opportunity to come back,” Ovechkin said.
Washington responded with a goal by Sonny Milano off a nifty feed from Nicklas Backstrom, and after Columbus again trimmed the lead when Roslovic beat Washington goaltender Charlie Lindgren (32 saves) on the power play, Capitals defenseman Nick Jensen snapped a shot past Blue Jackets goalie Daniil Tarasov (31 saves) with seven seconds left in the period to make it 5-3.
After Boqvist scored his second of the night at 6:37 of the third, Columbus tied it at 5 on an Emil Bemstrom goal at 8:35. After Jensen, back in the lineup after missing two games with an upper-body injury, answered with his second goal, on an impressive rush, to give his team a 6-5 lead at 15:24, the Blue Jackets tied it at 19:13 when Boone Jenner hit a wide-open net after a shot deflected off defenseman Rasmus Sandin and went right to Jenner. Lindgren threw his arms in the air in disbelief.
Ovechkin tried to bail out his team in overtime, revving wide past center ice with the puck and unleashing a shot that went just wide. By that point, the “Ovi! Ovi!” chants that had broken out earlier had been replaced by groans and long, anxious stretches of silence. When Roslovic ended it, many of the Capitals dropped their heads and skated off the ice.
The dressing room was quiet. Ovechkin was one of the last to leave. Before he greeted his family, he met with reporters. It almost felt out of place for him to talk about his career milestones on such a difficult night.
“I’m just trying to enjoy my time,” he finally said, “and trying to do my best.”
Here’s what else to know about the Capitals’ loss:
Carlson is close
Defenseman John Carlson, still recovering from a head injury suffered in late December, is close to returning to the lineup. He has been a full participant in team workouts the past two days, shedding the blue noncontact sweater for a normal white jersey, suggesting he could be ready this week — possibly for Thursday’s home game against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Kuemper, van Riemsdyk out
For the second straight game, goaltender Darcy Kuemper did not suit up because of an upper-body injury. Zach Fucale again served as Lindgren’s backup. Defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk also sat out; his wife was expected to give birth to the couple’s first child soon.
Kuznetsov suits up
Center Evgeny Kuznetsov was in the lineup after a blind-side hit knocked him out of Sunday’s loss at the Minnesota Wild. He was on the ice for 18 minutes 19 seconds and put two shots on goal.