Playoffs? Fantasy met reality Saturday night.
A year after finishing as the laughingstock of the league with a club-record-low 48 points, the Avalanche completed the improbable before some 18,000 adoring fans at the Pepsi Center.
Amid a wild Game 7-type atmosphere in the most unique NHL regular-season setting of its kind since 2010, the Avs defeated the St. Louis Blues 5-2 in Game 82 for both teams. By doing so, Colorado finished with 95 points — just a point shy of doubling its total from a year ago — and leapfrogged the Blues for the last Western Conference wild-card spot.
St. Louis’ playoff run ends at six years.
“To make the playoffs, hopefully it becomes a routine thing,” said star center Nathan MacKinnon, who gave the Avs a 3-1 lead late in the second period. “But I don’t think we expected this until the last couple months, when we really started to believe. It’s an unbelievable accomplishment. It’s got to be one of best accomplishments in modern sports history. We came in last by 20 points (last season). We were the worst team in 25 years.”
The Avs, who will participate in the playoffs for the first time in four years and just the third time in their last 10, will open a seven-game series against No. 1-seeded Nashville on Wednesday or Thursday at Bridgestone Arena in Music City. The Predators lost to Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup Final last year.
“We’re going to embrace the underdog role,” said defenseman Tyson Barrie, who gave Colorado a 2-0 lead with a big blast on the power play early in the second period. “We have an excited group in here, so we’re going to try to give them everything they can handle.”
The Blues, who lost top goal-scorer Vladimir Tarasenko to injury midway through the first period, will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
“It’s been a long road. We knew coming into training camp, and even really at the end of last season, it was going to take a lot of hard work,” said Avs captain Gabe Landeskog, who scored an empty-net goal to make it 4-1 late in the third period. “When you want to put the work in like I said, it’s a lot of fun coming to work every day.”
The Avs’ best forwards players and two undersized defensemen led the charge Saturday. Blue-liners Sam Girard and Barrie scored with long shots from the point and the MGM Line of MacKinnon, left wing Landeskog and right wing Mikko Rantanen were fantastic.
MacKinnon scored the third goal to snap a nine-game goals drought and Landeskog had two assists before scoring an empty-net goal with 3:23 remaining to ice the game at 4-1. Rantanen set up Barrie’s goal.
Both teams added goals in the final minute.
Goalie Jonathan Bernier also had an excellent game with 32 saves.
“That fourth goal felt really good, obviously,” Bernier said. “When you get in those big-stage games, your best players have to be their best players, but I thought everyone did their own thing. Nobody did too much. Everyone played their game. We chipped away and got some big goals.”
Only five Avs played in the club’s previous playoff series in 2014, when Colorado lost in Game 7 in the first round to Minnesota. MacKinnon, Landeskog and Barrie were youngsters on that team, along with defenseman Erik Johnson and goalie Semyon Varlamov, who both are out with injuries. Barrie missed the last half of the Minnesota series with injury.
The Avs led 2-0 and 3-1. Girard and Barrie scored before the Blues got on the board with Jaden Schwartz’s tip of Alex Pietrangelo’s long blast at 12:28 of the second period.
Barrie and Schwartz traded power-play goals at 6:11 and 12:28, respectively, before MacKinnon scored his first goal in 10 games to extend Colorado’s lead to 3-1 at 16:58.
The Blues and Avs were playing in a winner-take-all, regular-season finale for both teams for the first time since 2010 when Philadelphia defeated the New York Rangers in a 2-1 shootout to decide the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. The Flyers went on to win the conference title and play Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup Final.
If the Avs advance to the Stanley Cup Final, their turnover season would be legendary.
“I thought the crowd, the building was energized and I think our guys fed off that. They knew the importance of the game,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said. “That’s what we were hoping for — that type of commitment. That’s probably the best word to describe our group tonight. I thought throughout our lineup we were committed to play the right way.”