Sunday, April 8, 2018

Avalanche move to the playoffs, Blues' season ends with 5-2 loss

It came down to the final regular season game to 
determine who moves on to Stanley Cup Playoffs, who goes home

DENVER -- First, an empty locker room, then a few players began to trickle out. Some were dressed and ready to head out, some still trying to dissect the fact that it was over.

It's not a feeling the Blues are used to, at least not in recent memory of making the Stanley Cup Playoffs six straight years, but it is reality on this night, a Saturday night that came down to one hockey game, one team moves on, one team goes home.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues left wing Jaden Schwartz lays a heavy hit on Avalanche defenseman
Samuel Girard Saturday night at Pepsi Center.

The Blues are going home after a 5-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche at Pepsi Center that sends the Avalanche into the postseason for the first time since 2013-14 to face the Nashville Predators and send the Blues to their first offseason without playoff hockey since 2010-11.

So many raw emotions poured out of the locker room after the Blues, who close the season 44-32-6 and saddled with their fifth loss in six games.

"Right now it's just tough to swallow," forward Alexander Steen said. "Yeah, it's just an empty feeling."

The Blues beat the Chicago Blackhawks 4-1 on Friday to give themselves a better chance of clinching their seventh straight postseason berth. All they needed Saturday was a point, so at the very least, get the game to overtime and they were in. Anything after that was irrelevant. Or just win the game and it's all academic. 

But they were chasing the game from the get-go when Samuel Girard scored with 45.5 seconds left in the first period, and the Blues were in chase mode the rest of the way.

The only way for Colorado to move on was to win in regulation, and they did so without any sort of late drama or threat.

"I was just listening to 'Steener' and whatever I'm going to say is the same thing he's going to say," defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. "Disappointing and I thought we pushed to get to this point. We're obviously disappointed, but I'm proud of the guys in this room. There's a lot of guys that stepped up, there's a lot of injuries. It's not the result we want, but again, I'm proud of these guys."

"Well it's hard to put it into words to be honest with you," Blues coach Mike Yeo said. "Not a good feeling."

The Blues were playing their third game in four days, on back-to-back games with travel, then lost their top offensive threat [Vladimir Tarasenko] to what Yeo called after wards a "significant" upper-body injury, then a controversial call that allowed the Avalanche's second goal to count after the Blues challenged for offsides that took several minutes to come to a conclusion.

It all added up to the Blues fighting an uphill battle, and against the Avalanche (43-30-9) on this night, a team that played with speed and exuberance, it was going to be a tall task.

"For sure. I'm still in shock," Blues defenseman Joel Edmundson said. "It doesn't really feel like our season is done right now. It's definitely a shock. I thought we battled hard out there. We battled right to the end, we just couldn't get the job done. I've got to give credit to Colorado, though. They're a helluva team and they played their hearts out tonight. From their goalie out, they played a solid game, so it's a tough one to swallow and we'll definitely take a couple of days to reflect on it. For now, it's definitely a shock."

There was also goalie Jake Allen, who was sent to Denver ahead of the team Friday so he could get the proper preparation for the game, who pulled his hamstring in the second period but refused to come out of the big game, who made 34 saves and gave his team every chance to win, the same Jake Allen who knew he wasn't very good in a 4-3 loss to Chicago in what turned out to be the regular-season home finale, a game in which would have made this all academic had the Blues not coughed up a 3-1 lead that night.

"Everyone's pretty proud in here. There's a lot of people, a lot of people ... majority of people didn't even give us a chance to be in this game to be here," Allen said. "We had our ups and downs this year, it was a wild year, but we found a way to beat good teams at the right time, gave ourselves a chance, but credit Colorado, they've improved immensely over the last couple years and they played well again tonight obviously. It's tough to take, we gave ourselves a chance, but still not good enough."

"Jake was awesome," Yeo said. 

Tarasenko's injury occurred with 10:42 remaining in the first period and appeared to look harmless, trying to check Gabriel Landeskog along the center ice wall without much contact. Tarasenko immediately skated towards the bench slumping his left arm, a sign of some sort of shoulder ailment and would never return.

"I'm just going to say -- I haven't had an update -- but I can tell you, he took a pretty significant injury tonight, an upper-body injury," Yeo said. "He was very disappointed. It was obviously a real tough loss to lose him two minutes into the hockey game."

"'Vladi' obviously is one of the elite players in the league, so not easy to lose that guy," Pietrangelo said. "Not an easy thing in this game. Again, guys had to step up."

The first goal was going to be important in a game of this magnitude, and the Avalanche got it.

They struck first with 45.5 remaining in the first period when Blake Comeau comes off the wall winning the puck from Vince Dunn, and once he does, the Blues had five guys caught on one side of the ice. The puck came to Girard at the right point and he blew a slap shot past Allen short side with Carl Soderberg screening but Colton Parayko never shoving Soderberg off his space given the chance.

"I would have been real happy if we would've got through the first period," Yeo said. "We knew that they were going to have a good start, so that was definitely a tough goal to give up. Even at that, though, it's 1-0, and I thought the second goal was a little bit of a tougher one. When you played the night before and you have to try to climb out of a 2-0 hole, against a team that's going to play well and playing with every ounce of desperation they have, that's going to be a tough hole."

That second goal came off the stick of Tyson Barrie, whose one-timer from the point through traffic on an extended shift in the zone that never came out beat Allen cleanly.

Or did it?

The Blues challenged for offsides on the play, and as close as it was, sure looked like the puck was just outside the blue line, but after a lengthy review, one that took nearly seven minutes, the video war room in Toronto determined that there were no definitive replays which showed that the puck left the attacking zone and the goal stood at 6:11 of the second period.

Obviously, the Blues were incensed.

"It changed the momentum," Pietrangelo said. "I don't know what view they're looking at because ... maybe they need some glasses in Toronto because that's pretty disappointing. I could show you four different angles and it's half an inch offside, so I don't know what they're looking at. Maybe they're guessing or maybe they don't want us to get in the playoffs, I don't know. It's not good.

"... We thought for sure it was going to be ... if you look at it, you know it's offside. We killed it off, but still, that's not the point."

Yeo trusts assistant/video coach Sean Ferrell and believed the right call to challenge was made on it.

"Sean is good. He's really good," Yeo said. "I think it was the right call. I still think it was the right call. So yeah, even me looking at it on the bench, we felt pretty confident. It's not like there was four inches of white ice there, but we felt that we saw enough that it would be overturned.

"Obviously you understand the rule ... you've got to be pretty confident and feel pretty good that you're making the right call, so we thought we were. But, you know, it is what it is. Not going to blame this season on a bad call."

Edmundson was on the ice when the goal was scored and immediately pointed to the officials of the potential infraction.

"I mean I was on the ice and from my point of view it looked like it was offside," Edmundson said. "I put my arm up right away. Then I saw the replay on the little screen here beside our bench and I still thought it was offsides. That's a tough one to swallow.

"Yeah, that was a huge turning point. It definitely affected our team, but we still had time to come back. We just didn't have the push that we wanted and like I said, that was a tough one to swallow. I don't agree with it."

Now the Blues were up against it, but got a key power-play goal -- yes, a power-play goal -- from Jaden Schwartz tipped home Pietrangelo's blast at 12:28 of the second to make it 2-1.

Now, game on.

But the Blues had to overcome what could have been another injury, this time to Allen when he pulled his hamstring on a funky play of a bouncing puck that just slid wide of his right with 7:15 remaining in the period.

"Yeah, I pulled my hamstring. I had to battle through it," Allen said. "Any other game, I probably would have went out. But it's a game we needed, needed to win. Just came up short. Not feeling great right now."

Asked if he had to convince himself to stay in after head athletic trainer Ray Barile came out to visit, Allen said, "I'm not leaving the game. ... My leg went under me. It was a weird play. Puck deflected a couple times. Right up my ass, the side of it. I could tell something was wrong right away."

Allen would stay in and play well, but the crushing goal was Nathan MacKinnon's goal, what turned out to be the game-winning goal, with 3:02 remaining in the second on a 4-on-4 play.

MacKinnon weaved the puck back and forth with Landeskog before getting some prime real estate in front of Parayko, who did not come up to challenge the Avalanche star, and MacKinnon's shot from a left circle caromed off Parayko's stick and up into the corner to make it 3-1.

"Yeah, he's one of the best players in the league for a reason," Edmundson said. "If you give him a little bit of room, he'll take advantage of it. He got that shot off, it might have went off a stick, I'm not sure. But you just can't let him have that room, especially 4-on-4, it's just man on man, so that was a big turning point in the game, too."

A two-goal deficit heading into the third period for an offensively-challenged team without its leading goal scorer was a tall order.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues goalie Jake Allen makes one of his 34 saves on Saturday but the
season came to an end in a 5-2 loss to the Avalanche.

The Blues threw whatever they could at Jonathan Bernier, but the Avs backstopper made 32 saves, and Landeskog clinched the Avs' spot in the playoffs with an empty-netter at 16:37 to make it 4-1.

Brayden Schenn scored with 37.2 remaining, but Matt Nieto added another empty-netter with nine seconds left and when the final horn sounded, the home team and their fans were celebrating, and rightfully so.

"I think that every one of our guys gave everything that we had tonight," Yeo said. "The guys, they completely emptied the tank. It's been a grind for a long time here, been really fighting hard for a long time, and obviously the schedule coming in here today ... tough schedule ... but again as far as the effort that the guys gave, couldn't ask for more tonight."

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