As Vancouver Canucks center Jay Beagle stood in front of his team’s bench, clearly emotional as the Washington crowd applauded him, whatever competition there was supposed to be between the two teams briefly halted. Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin skated over to Beagle and hugged the player who had sat in the next stall over in the locker room last season. And then play resumed and any sentimentality was quickly put aside.
On a night Beagle made his emotional return to Capital One Arena, his first game in Washington since he helped the Capitals win a franchise-first Stanley Cup, the team honored him and then went on to beat him and the Canucks, 3-2. The win keeps Washington in second place in the Metropolitan Division with 64 points, just two points behind the New York Islanders despite the Capitals losing eight of their past 10 games.
Washington took a 2-0 lead 5:47 into the third period with Brett Connolly’s goal from right in front of the net, where he jammed in a superb feed from center Evgeny Kuznetsov. That marked Connolly’s first goal in 14 games, one of several droughts among Capitals players who had gone cold over the past month as the team has collectively struggled. But 2:15 later, Vancouver’s Markus Granland drove toward the net and tipped a first puck past goaltender Braden Holtby to make it a one-goal game again.
Then, with 7:47 left in the game, forward Jakub Vrana tossed a puck up from behind the net, and it took a fortuitous bounce down Vancouver goaltender Jacob Markstrom’s back and across the goal line, putting Washington up 3-1 on the strangest of tallies. Kuznetsov had tried to smack in the puck from in front of the net, but his two misses were fortuitous because had he touched it, the goal would’ve been reversed for a high stick.
“I was so excited when I saw the puck go flying like that, and you can’t really do anything over there,” Kuznetsov said. “I tried to hit puck, but I missed twice. I feel like I’m not good at baseball game.”
After the game, several Capitals players gathered in a tunnel and waited for Beagle to come out of the visiting locker room so they could bid him farewell once again. Beagle had been among the first Canucks to arrive at the arena before Tuesday’s game, eager to catch up with Capitals staff members and his former teammates. He had fired off a few texts earlier — “There was some chirping going on,” he said — and he and Capitals forward T.J. Oshie promised to get in a few good hits on each other. He thought he might have to hide his face in his jersey so everyone wouldn’t see him cry when Washington showed a tribute video for him on the big screen.
“Yeah, that was tough,” Beagle said. “It actually was. I felt like I was jumping pretty good. I had pretty good legs and then that kind of set me back for the rest of the first, which they planned that. That’s on them. That was dirty of them. That was dirty.”
Fans lined the glass with signs welcoming Beagle back and applauded him as he was leaving the ice after pregame warm-ups. He acknowledged them with a few waves, tossing some pucks into the crowd. The tribute video came at the first television timeout, garnering a standing ovation.
It’s rare for bottom-six forwards to become franchise fixtures, but Beagle endeared himself to the Capitals and their fan base with his tireless work ethic that set an example for others in the locker room. He was undrafted, which forced him to work his way up from the college ranks to the ECHL to an American Hockey League contract before he finally got a big league deal from the Capitals. He stayed on the team for nearly a decade before leaving in free agency this past summer. He played his 500th NHL game Monday night in Philadelphia.
Washington wouldn’t have been able to match the four-year, $12 million contract he got from Vancouver, but the Capitals have arguably missed Beagle. He was the best centerman in the faceoff dot last season, winning 58.5 percent of his draws, which ranked fourth in the NHL. Without him this year, Washington’s 46 percent success rate on faceoffs is last in the league. Beagle won 9 of 11 faceoffs Tuesday.
“Those guys, I hope they know how lucky they are to have him on their team,” Holtby said.
Washington dominated the first period with 18 shots to Vancouver’s five, and Oshie especially set the tone with his physical play. He scored on a rebound three minutes into the game for a 1-0 lead, and Ovechkin recorded a secondary assist on that play to pass Hall of Fame center Sergei Fedorov for the most points by a Russian-born player. It was his 1,180th point.
“It’s history, and I passed all those legends,” Ovechkin said. “You know, it’s pretty big, and I appreciate everybody who do all work with me, my teammates, and it’s huge. When you start playing hockey and you came to the NHL, you just have a dream to score one goal or two, and now I’m No. 1 on the all-time Russian list. It’s pretty amazing.”
As Washington struggled to generate much offensive-zone time in the second period with Vancouver dictating play, Holtby single-handedly maintained the Capitals’ one-goal lead through the second intermission. He made five saves on shots that were within 25 feet of the net, and 12:53 into the period he made a blocker save on Bo Horvat’s penalty shot, buying Washington time to build a cushion.
“Hockey goes in cycles sometimes, and I think we’re doing a good job in front of our net right now about making clear lanes to see, taking away different options, limiting the options,” Holtby said. “I think it’s just one of those things. Sometimes it goes in cycles like that. You just try and analyze every game to see what you can do better and move forward.”