But that was the last time he let a puck get past him in a successful return to the ice.
Howard made 26 saves after missing four games with an injured left knee.
"I felt surprisingly good," he said. "I didn't have any issues at all with the knee, which I think is a great sign because I came back last time and still felt it every once in a while."
Ovechkin tied the game with 7 seconds left in the third period, but was one of seven shooters who couldn't score on Howard.
"I had opportunity before to put puck in the net," Ovechkin said. "Howard played really well."
Detroit's Gustav Nyquist scored a tiebreaking goal midway through the third period, but the Red Wings couldn't prevent the NHL's goal-scoring leader from sending the game to overtime.
The Capitals pulled their goaltender late in regulation and the move paid off.
After a short break on the bench, Ovechkin had time and space to wind up for a slap shot from above the circles that sent the puck past Howard and into the net to make it 3-all.
"Ovechkin's a dangerous guy," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said.
Ovechkin has 39 goals this season, his highest total since scoring 50 during the 2009-10 season
The banged-up Red Wings welcomed back two key players: Howard and Henrik Zetterberg
Zetterberg had missed two games with a back injury.
"I think Zetterberg on the bench really helped," Babcock said. "I don't care who you are, when a lot of your best players aren't there, you're wondering where the next goal's coming from."
Michal Neuvirth stopped 42 shots to match a career high. One of his first was perhaps his best, flashing his glove to snag Nyquist's shot off a rebound just in front of the net midway through the first period. He also gave Washington a shot to win in the shootout, stopping the first six shots he faced.
"Very frustrating being so close to a win, but at least we got one point," he said.
Jason Chimera put the Capitals ahead 1-0 at the 15:24 mark of the first period on a power play and teammate Casey Wellman tied it at 2-all midway through the third, scoring on his third straight shot in a 2-second sequence.
"Took a couple of whacks at it and it went in," Wellman said.
Washington had a chance to tie the game again when it went on the power play with 3:29 left in the game. Howard, though, helped the Red Wings stay ahead by smothering a shot from Ovechkin.
"He made huge saves on the penalty kill late," Babcock said. "They had good chances and he made great saves."
The lead didn't last much longer because Ovechkin made it 3-all late in regulation.
"People don't realize how hard that shot is," Capitals coach Adam Oates said. "The ice is terrible at that time, the pass comes a long way. Just to get good wood on that puck is very difficult. He seems to shine at that moment."
"All in all, the guys worked really hard and we scored a goal late," Oates said. "I think the guys gotta feel pretty good about that. Yeah, you want to win it, but I think they feel pretty good."
Howard helped, too, and will be on the U.S. team at the Winter Olympics in two weeks if he can stay healthy.
Detroit star forward Pavel Datsyuk missed his 12th straight game with a lower-body injury. Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said he hopes Datsyuk can play at least one game in the next week.
The captain of Russia's team has vowed he will be healthy enough to go for gold in his home country, but he declined to talk to a reporter following a postgame chat with Ovechkin, an Olympic teammate, that lasted about 10 minutes. Datsyuk often picked up, bent and extended his left leg as he talked with Ovechkin.
"We just talked about his injury," Ovechkin said. "I hope he's going to be OK."
Washington defenseman Mike Green was scratched with a concussion, a night after he was hit hard into the boards on a check by Columbus' Boone Jenner. "We're going through the process of testing him," Oates said. ... Nyquist has scored in five of six games and has 10 goals in 29 games this season, putting him in contention to replace injured Red Wings teammate Johan Franzen on Sweden's team at the Sochi Games. ... Neuvirth also made 42 saves on Feb. 5, 2010.