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Avalanche finally clear second-round hurdle, earn date with Oilers

That sound you hear is a collective deep breath, a natural response to all of the scar tissue that had been left behind, a not-so-friendly reminder of opportunities lost over the years.

For as much heartbreak as the Colorado Avalanche had suffered in being ousted from the second round in each of the past three editions of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, that narrative was tossed into the trash can when Darren Helm scored with 5.6 seconds left in regulation time to secure a 3-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues in Game 6 on Friday night at Enterprise Center.

Replacing that pain was a feeling of jubilation, but of the temporary kind.

There is a long-standing belief that often before a team can experience the unadulterated joy of getting to the top of the mountain, it must first overcome some pain along the way — sometimes plenty of it.

Learning from early exits is often the rule, not the exception.

Case in point, the Avalanche are advancing to the Western Conference Final for the first time since 2002.

“Absolutely. we’ve been through some dark times together and some tough times, being way at the bottom of the league together and now obviously our team has changed a lot over the last handful of years and gotten better as a team and taken ownership of this team and what we’re doing on the ice and off the ice as well,” Avalanche captain Gabe Landeskog told reporters in St. Louis.

“Obviously, it’s rewarding getting over this hump. At the same time, we have a big goal in mind. I feel the best is ahead.”

The Avalanche open the third round on Tuesday night in Denver against the Edmonton Oilers.

Part of the reason they got there was because of a sprawling save by Avalanche defenceman Josh Manson, who activated street hockey goalie mode to prevent Blues forward Jordan Kyrou from giving his team a two-goal cushion late in the second period.

“Well, there was a bit of a panic, to be honest with you, because they made a good play,” said Manson, who scored the overtime winner in Game 1 of this series. “Once it went to Kyrou, I knew he was a really patient player and I had a feeling he was going to hold on to that thing and once I saw him take the step, I just was hoping that it would hit me.”

Much to the delight of Avalanche goalie Darcy Kuemper, who wasn’t nearly as busy as Ville Husso. The Blues goalie played his best game of the series since taking over from Jordan Binnington (who suffered a knee injury in Game 3) and finished with 36 saves.

“I’m not going to complain about the guys playing the whole game down there,” said Kuemper, who made 18 saves. “It’s a little bit of a challenge for sure, staying sharp and being ready for the next shot. I have a lot of confidence in the skill and talent of our group that when we’re playing like that we’re eventually going to score. I just try to keep my focus of not allowing them to get another one. Obviously, we’re not giving up many chances. And then I just know if we stick with it, we’ll eventually pop a couple.”

After Avalanche centre Nathan MacKinnon was the star of the show in Game 5, supplying a hat trick (including a highlight-reel marker) and adding an assist in the crushing 5-4 overtime loss, the supporting cast was all over the scoresheet on Friday.

After getting just one goal from the third and fourth lines through the first five games of the series, the Avalanche got a pair of goals from J.T. Compher — erasing two separate one-goal deficits before Helm supplied the heroics.

Helm, who spent the previous 14 seasons of his career with the Detroit Red Wings before signing a one-year deal for $1 million with Colorado, cashed in on the 13-year anniversary of producing his only playoff overtime winner (one that gave the Red Wings a 2-1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks).

“I had no idea. Pretty special day,” said Helm, who suited up in the 92nd playoff game of his career.

After Tyler Bozak kept the Blues’ season alive on Wednesday with an OT winner, it seemed fitting that the fourth-line centre on the Avalanche came back with the final counterpunch.

Landeskog wasn’t calling the 35-year-old Helm old, but he did reference watching him when he was a member of the 2008 Stanley Cup champions.

“There’s no other guy who deserves it as much as he does,” said Landeskog. “You talk about his work ethic but you know, he’s a guy who comes to the rink, (with a) smile on his face, gets along with everybody, leads by example.

“Obviously he’s been around for a long time. I remember being a teenager back home in Sweden, watching him on those Cup runs with the Red Wings in ’08 and ’09. It’s been a pleasure playing with him and obviously he steps up big tonight. I thought that whole line was one of our better lines all night. They were in the O-zone every single shift and you know, that’s crucial at this time of year.”

Depth is essential on the road to the 16 wins required to win it all.

The Avalanche lost minute-munching defenceman Samuel Girard for the remainder of the playoffs to a broken sternum in Game 3, yet there was veteran Erik Johnson leading the rush in the waning seconds of Game 6.

And there was Manson, the valuable trade deadline acquisition, making a miraculous save and chipping in an assist on Friday to go along with his Game 1 OT winner.

Looking for the guy who set up the final goal of the series?

None other than fourth-line winger Logan O’Connor, who just so happened to be a healthy scratch in the first two games against the Blues before scoring a goal in Game 3 and assisting on the series clincher.

“I know it’s a cliché but you look at any team that wins, everybody’s chipping in and that’s kind of been our team this year in the playoffs,” said MacKinnon. “It’s a crazy game, hockey, and that’s what makes it exciting.”

There will be plenty of time to dissect what should be a tremendous West Final, as MacKinnon and Connor McDavid get set to face one another for the first time in the playoffs.

While he answered an obligatory question about the matchup, MacKinnon wasn’t about to brush aside what the Avalanche had just done either.

You can’t blame him, especially considering all of the times he’s been asked about past team failures, even as he’s piled up incredibly impressive individual numbers in the playoffs (36 goals, 82 points in 60 games).

“It means a lot. I think you really have to enjoy the journey. That’s the most important thing we’re going to look back on is the journey of getting to this point,” said MacKinnon. “There will only be four teams soon and obviously the job’s not finished, but that’s a great accomplishment for us.

“A lot of challenges (facing the Oilers). Obviously they have two of the most dangerous players in the league right now. Maybe three with (Evander) Kane and a really deep team. Their structure is underrated. Playing Edmonton all year, they have a really tight structure with Jay (Woodcroft) there.

“So, it’s a tough team to play against. They don’t give you much and they’re committed to both sides of the puck, despite the narrative around that team. Obviously that’s probably changing now, but a really tough team to play against. It’s going to be a full-team effort to shut those guys down. Got to stay out of the box as well, but we’re confident. We feel if we play our best, we can get it done against anybody.”

Coach Jared Bednar was reflective in his post-game comments, just as he had been all series.

He was proud of his group, yet not shying away from the fact the task was about to get tougher.

Praising the effort, but asking for more.

It’s a fine line between winning and losing when you make it this far, yet the belief Bednar helped instill in this group was evident throughout this series.

The Avalanche were not overwhelmed when things didn’t go their way.

Not only did they push back, they persevered.

So what changed this time around?

“It’s likely the experience of what’s gone on in the past,” said Bednar. “It’s hard. It’s really hard. Everyone just thinks, ‘oh, Colorado’s got a good team, they should win the Cup.’ Well, there are a lot of good teams in the league and every team presents a different challenge. I still look at it like – I’m really happy.

“Hopefully, our guys take a breath and we get even better moving forward because we’ll have to. We’re only halfway to our goal is the way I look at it. There’s only one winner. We want it to be us and our focus is that. I’m happy. I’m proud of our guys. I’m proud of our season to this point, but we’re just starting the work.”

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