Needing to win their final two games while getting some outside assistance in order to gain the final Western Conference playoff berth, the Avalanche were eliminated Thursday night with a 5-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets at the Pepsi Center.
Rookie Cam Atkinson collected a hat trick and Rick Nash scored twice for the Blue Jackets, who own the worst record in the NHL but have won four of their past five games.
The Avalanche, 1-4-1 in the past six, will close out their second non-playoff season in a row Saturday against Nashville. The Blue Jackets play their season finale Saturday at home against the New York Islanders.
Colorado's 88 points are 20 points better than last season's 29th-place team, but the improvement is of no solace to coach Joe Sacco or any of his players.
"It's definitely a disappointing loss," Avalanche captain Milan Hejduk said. "We didn't take care of business like we wanted to do. We didn't play good enough. I felt like we were a little tight at times. It's the end of it."
"It's disappointing not to reach one our goals, which at the start of the year was to get into the playoffs and give yourself a chance to win a Stanley Cup," Sacco said. "That's what you work for all summer long, what you work for all year long. I thought we made a real solid push down the stretch, especially from the All-Star break on. I thought our guys played really hard. But it's tough when you get to game 81 and you lose like we did tonight. I feel bad for the players. They worked real hard. It (stinks) to come up short."
Down 4-2 and in a desperate attempt to tie the game and send it to overtime, Sacco pulled goalie Semyon Varlamov for an extra attacker with 3:50 left in the third period. But Atkinson ended any possibility of that happening by scoring into the vacated net with 1:04 to play.
"It definitely felt good," said Atkinson, a former Boston College star. He has five goals and six assists in 26 games since his Feb. 24 recall from Springfield in the American Hockey League. "I think I definitely get a little more confidence as each game comes along. One more to go. It would be nice to finish the season off on a high note. The last month or so we've been playing for pride and trying to play some good hockey."
The Blue Jackets got goals from Nash and Atkinson 5:04 apart in the second period to grab a 4-2 lead, which was plenty for goalie Steve Mason. He finished with 35 saves for his second win at the Pepsi Center in little more than a month. Mason made 33 saves March 1 in a 2-0 win.
Nash, who suffered an undisclosed injury on his first shift in the third period and didn’t return, broke a 2-2 tie at 6:47 of the second period with a shot from the bottom of the right circle with five seconds left on a two-man advantage.
"We kind of shot ourselves in the foot," Sacco said. "We had some costly turnovers. It led to a penalty, and then we take a penalty to make it 5-on-3. Just too many turnovers. Nothing really that they did to us. It was more what we did to ourselves. The guys battled to the end, but we just came up short."
Atkinson made it 4-2 at 11:51 with his second goal of the game moments after Avalanche defenseman Shane O'Brien lost the puck in his own end. RJ Umberger passed to Atkinson, who moved in alone on Varlamov and chipped the puck into the net.
"We came back a couple times, but it seemed like they always had an answer," Hejduk said. "We knew they were playing pretty good lately, but it was not our best game. It's unfortunate."
Trailing 2-1 after the first period, the Avalanche tied the game on a goal by Paul Stastny at 2:38 of the second period, eight seconds into a power play. Stastny won a draw in the left circle and skated in front to put in the rebound of Peter Mueller’s shot.
The Blue Jackets took a 2-1 lead in the first period on a goal by Nash with 2:31 remaining. Mark Letestu fired a shot that Varlamov stopped, but when the puck slid near the right post, Nash moved in untouched and slipped it across the goal line.
Columbus opened the scoring on a breakaway by Atkinson at 6:35 of the first period after Mueller's pass hit a skate just inside the Blue Jackets' blue line. Atkinson broke down the middle and chipped the puck by Varlamov's left pad.
The Avalanche tied the game on David Jones' goal at 9:56. Jamie McGinn skated down right wing as Jones moved down the slot. McGinn threw a centering pass that Jones redirected into the net.
"The worst part of it is, at times we controlled our own destiny and we just didn't pull through and come away with a victory," Stastny said. "We were careless tonight. We have up too many 2-on-1s and 3-on-2s. When we play that game, we always find ourselves in trouble."