WASHINGTON – A great hockey game Saturday still wasn’t as beautiful as the ceremony that preceded it.
It was Hockey Fights Cancer day in Washington, so the Capitals introduced their starters along with young cancer patients, while thousands of fans in the arena’s sea of red turned on the flashlights on their smartphones.
At the other end of the ice, Jacob Markstrom crouched in the semi-darkness of the Vancouver Canucks’ goal area and probably thought about his father, Anders, who lost his fight with cancer two weeks ago in Sweden.
Every day for the rest of his National Hockey League career could be Hockey Fights Cancer Day for Markstrom.
The 29-year-old goalie was beaten just 2:22 into the game on the third shot he faced. But Markstrom did not allow another goal, stopping the Capitals’ final 30 shots, then shutting out the 2018 Stanley Cup champions in a seven-round shootout before the Canucks won 2-1 to cap one of their most impressive performances of the season.
Two games ago, the Canucks were reeling from a 1-5-2 stumble in the standings. Without warning, they’ve now banged off consecutive road victories in Nashville and Washington – hard places to play – despite a handful of injuries.
And Saturday’s win came largely without top defenceman Alex Edler, who left the game in the first period with an unspecified "upper-body injury."
With injured checking centre Jay Beagle back out of the lineup for the second time in a week, Canucks centre Bo Horvat logged 26:08 of ice time before shooting past Braden Holtby to win the tie-breaker.
Vancouver’s five remaining defencemen were outstanding. Tyler Myers saved a goal by pulling a puck off the line behind Markstrom in the second period, and rookie Quinn Hughes, who played 25:13, made the defensive play of the game in overtime by propelling back-checking teammate J.T. Miller with a stick-push in the pants just in time to breakup T.J. Oshie’s breakaway.
Canucks scoring leader Elias Pettersson, who admitted to Sportsnet on Thursday that he hasn’t been working hard enough to make the impact he should, battled and chased pucks and slammed a power-play one-timer past Holtby for Vancouver’s only goal through 65 minutes.
But none of this, under the circumstances, was as impressive as Markstrom’s best performance since an Oct. 20 win in New York, where he made 38 saves against the Rangers upon his return from a five-day trip home to say goodbye to his dying father.
"Every day is emotional," Markstrom said Saturday when asked about the pre-game ceremony. "I’ve got great support from everywhere, from the owner to (general manager Jim) Benning and coaches and players and friends. But it’s tough."
Although Canucks coach Travis Green said he did not know when he decided to start Markstrom that the Capitals would be honouring the fight against cancer on Saturday, Markstrom said he knew before the game what was coming.
"It’s such a good cause," he said. "You know how much it means. When it affects you first hand… it’s tough. You want to have hockey, you know, you go play hockey and you get away and you don’t think about anything else for an hour. But it’s tough.
"You can’t do it by yourself. I’ve got my brother, my sister and my mom and my friends back home. I talk to them every day. It means the world that they’re back home right now and taking care of stuff, and letting me be here to play. I would love to be there to help them."
The Canucks are doing what they can to help Markstrom.
"It’s pretty amazing actually," Horvat, the captain, said. "Unbelievable game here tonight by Marky. We’re lucky to have him and happy to get him that win tonight. It can’t be easy, especially as a starter and going through what he’s gone through. For him to be mentally strong the entire game, mentally strong through this whole process, speaks a lot to his character."
So does Green’s belief in Markstrom. The coach had no reason to go back to his struggling starter when Markstrom allowed six goals on 31 shots in Tuesday’s 6-1 loss to the Dallas Stars — possibly the worst effort by the Canucks this season.
But Green halted the rotation with backup Thatcher Demko, and put Markstrom back in net in Nashville, where his 45 saves included a spectacular 21 in the final period. On Saturday, Markstrom played his best game in a month.
Green said he and goaltending coach Ian Clark spent Wednesday discussing which goalie should play.
"Clarky met with Marky and just felt like it was coming," Green rhymed. "I think we wanted to show him some confidence as well and get him back in the net right away. He’s given us two big games after that."
"I thought I played pretty good today," Markstrom said. "It’s a new game in a couple of days; we’ll see how I play then. I’m going to try to keep it going and work hard in practice. That’s all I can do."
Markstrom appears to be getting his game back. So do the Canucks.
With five power-play goals in Nashville — and 48 shots against — it was hard to know what to make of that performance by Vancouver. But the win in Washington validated the earlier one and gives the Canucks some actual momentum halfway through their difficult six-game trip.
"We said in the room that we don’t want to be one-and-done," Horvat said. "We want to be a team that comes to play every night and knows how to win, and I thought we brought it tonight. Everybody."
Hughes said: "We went for a little bit of a slump there and to pull together two really big wins against really good teams… it’s good."
Hughes and Miller set up Pettersson’s goal, but Hughes’ best assist was shoving Miller in the rump as they desperately chased down Oshie in overtime.
"It’s not that hard," Hughes said of the technique. "You just push, like, his butt."
The Canucks visit the Philadelphia Flyers on Monday.