Coming off a tough loss in Edmonton the night before, a game in which they lost in overtime after leading by two goals in the third, it looked like the Caps were going to take this one on the chin.
But everything shifted in the final tick of the second period, sparking an improbable comeback in which the Caps dug their way out of a 5-1 ditch to earn a 6-5 shootout win over the stunned Canucks.
Video: Capitals rally to beat Canucks in shootout
Nicklas Backstrom's shootout goal provided the margin of victory, but it was Evgeny Kuznetsov's buzzer beater with three-tenths of a second left in the middle period that gave the Caps life and hope, making it a 5-2 game.
From there, they struck for three more goals - the last two of them on center point drives from Michal Kempny - in the first eight minutes of the third.
"At the end of the second period, I think Kuzy scored a big goal there," says Backstrom. "It kind of kept us in the game a little bit. Even if we're down three goals, our mindset going into the third was they have a young team, and maybe if we put some pressure on them early and get a couple of goals, maybe it will be a different game. That's what we did, and we got lucky. We got fortunate tonight."
Entering Friday night's game with the Canucks, special teams and strong second periods had been high points for Washington on the young season. But Vancouver turned both of those tables on the Caps, scoring a couple special teams goals in the first to take the lead, and then blowing the game open with a three-goal outburst in the middle period.
For the ninth time in 13 games this season, the Caps broke the seal on the scoresheet, taking a 1-0 lead before Friday's game was four minutes old.
Seconds after Canucks netminder Jacob Markstrom papered over a Vancouver turnover with an excellent save on Jakub Vrana, Vrana collected an errant Canucks clearing try up by the Vancouver line. He fed Kuznetsov down low, and Kuznetsov beat Markstrom in a 1-on-1 situation to lift the Caps to a 1-0 lead at 3:18 of the first.
Video: Postgame Locker Room | October 25
The lead was short-lived, however. Vancouver wrested control of the contest from the Caps on special teams. First, Brock Boeser scored on a Canucks power play at 5:33, taking a nice feed from rookie defenseman Quinn Hughes after Hughes carried nearly the length of the ice.
With the game even at 1-1, Washington got its first power play of the game at 7:21 of the first. Eight seconds later, they were down a goal.
Ex-Cap Jay Beagle won the face-off at the start of the kill for Vancouver, and Tim Schaller took off into Washington ice with the puck, putting a shot on net from above the left circle. The shot eluded Caps goalie Ilya Samsonov, and Vancouver had a 2-1 lead at 7:39 of the first.
Early in the second, the Canucks' top forward trio combined to expand the lead. Boeser and J.T. Miller combined to set up Elias Pettersson, who scored at 5:59 to make it a 3-1 game.
Video: Todd Reirden Postgame | October 25
In the back half of the second, the Caps' top line of Alex Ovechkin, Backstrom and T.J. Oshie put together an o-zone possession shift, but they weren't able to penetrate the middle of the ice, and their lone shot attempt was blocked. On the very next shift, the Caps lost the handle in their end of the ice, and Schaller made them pay with his second of the night at 13:59, making it a 4-1 game.
Less than a minute later, the Canucks' second line got in on the action and Jake Virtanen ripped one past Samsonov from the slot. Vancouver's fifth unanswered goal came at 14:54 of the third, leaving the Caps looking up at a 5-1 deficit.
In the waning seconds of the second, the Caps shrunk the Canucks' advantage by one when Kuznetsov snuck a shot past Markstrom with three-tenths of a second left in the frame. Kuznetsov's shot on net was the first the Caps managed in a span of 10 minutes and 34 seconds. The Caps came 200 feet to score that goal, and it ended up making all of the difference.
"I think it starts with the way we break out the puck," says Kuznetsov. "Lars [Eller] made a good play, and [Radko Gudas] did not throw away the puck; he pulled up and then Lars made a great pass to me. But it all starts in the [defensive] zone."
Early in the third, the Caps took another step backwards when Vrana was boxed for hi-sticking in the offensive zone. But not only did the kill the penalty, they cut the deficit to 5-3 when Garnet Hathaway made a feed to Eller from the right wing corner. From the slot, Eller scored a soft shorthanded goal through Markstrom's legs to make it 5-3.
Then it became Kempny's time to shine. A week after returning to the lineup and scoring his first goal of the season in a win over the New York Rangers, Kempny authored the first two-goal game of his career, scoring on consecutive shifts early in the third, both times on drives from center point. Kempny's two tallies came 2:44 apart from one another.
Samsonov was terrific in the third period, too, making every save while the Caps whittled away and after they pulled even. He stopped two of three in the shootout to earn his fourth win in as many NHL starts.
"A huge win for us," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "A crazy game, and [the Canucks] converted on some of their chances early on. The huge goal for us was Kuznetsov's right before the break, under a second [on the clock]. He obviously gets it in a good spot, finishes it, and we were able to talk about that between periods, and really feel like we could build some momentum and get some opportunities if we played the right way.
"We didn't feel like we needed to cheat to get the offense, but we thought we could get some chances, and we were able to get that thing finally tied up and push through in the shootout."