The Colorado Avalanche is playing its best hockey at the right time of the season.
Colorado heads into the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the hottest team in the NHL since St. Patrick's Day, posting an 8-0-2 record in that timespan to climb into and secure a Western Conference wild-card spot. The Avalanche punched its ticket for the postseason by forcing its game against the Winnipeg Jets to overtime and then grabbed the extra point in the tiebreaking session for good measure.
"I love the character and the push and the determination, the will to win by our group," said head coach Jared Bednar. "That is what I'm most proud of. To kick down the front door and get into the playoffs and finish the way we've finished is an exceptional job by our leaders, by all the guys stepping up, secondary scoring, special teams has been better, goaltending has been exceptional."
Defenseman Erik Johnson scored the game-winning goal in OT to give the Avs a 3-2 victory over the Jets, tallying on a 2-on-1 rush with Nathan MacKinnon. It was Johnson's first game-winner of the season and sixth overtime marker of his career (third with Colorado).
"At that point, it was just a bonus. To send our crowd into a frenzy, it felt good," Johnson said of the tally. "Any time you score a goal in overtime, it's fun. It's just one of those good feelings. If you could put it in a bottle and store it away for a rainy day, it's one you would want to experience all the time. It's a great feeling. Just a ton of fun."
Video: Erik Johnson on clinching a playoff berth
Video: WPG@COL: Johnson wins it in OT after Avalanche clinch
Johnson's goal came 1:49 into overtime and 1:15 after the Avalanche killed a Jets power play that could have altered its season.
That penalty was for too many men on the ice with 1:26 left to play in regulation, setting the stage for a tense and frenzied final minute-plus. To clinch a playoff spot, Colorado needed to at least get to OT or have the Coyotes lose at the Vegas Golden Knights--Arizona ended up winning 4-1.
"Man, we made it so tough on ourselves," Johnson said. "Too many men with 1:20 left, you should have heard the groan on the bench. We were like, 'You've got to be kidding me?' We killed it off, they hit a pipe, guys were selling out left and right, I did a friggin' backflip trying to block [Patrik] Laine's shot. It was loud in there, it sure was fun."
That sacrifice that the team displayed in the closing seconds will need to be a common trend when the postseason begins next week.
"At the end there, it's all hands on deck," said defenseman Ian Cole of the mad scramble. "It's kind of prison rules in front of the net and just make sure you get it done."
Video: Cole on defeating Jets and clinching a playoff spot
Cole blocked six shots in the game and three of them came in the final two minutes of regulation and overtime. He now has 177 blocked shots this season, ranking fourth overall in the league.
When Matt Calvert made a last second block and the third period clock finally struck 0:00.0, the Avalanche was allowed a brief chance to celebrate clinching a playoff berth. It was the first time that the franchise had reached the postseason in consecutive campaigns since an 11-year run from 1995 to 2006.
"They deserved the celebration at that point. It's a little bit strange, like that is something that doesn't happen every day," Bednar said. "It feels weird because you're on the bench and everybody is back slapping, and you haven't even won the hockey game yet. It's a unique situation. It felt great, and I think it energized our team a little bit for overtime."
Video: WPG@COL: Avs earn point to clinch playoff berth
Thursday's outing was the final home game of the regular season for Colorado, and the team closed its home slate with a season-high six-game winning streak. Overall, the Avalanche finished 21-14-6 at Pepsi Center, including going 11-2-1 in the final 14 contests in Denver.
The Avs are riding high heading into the final game of the main campaign on Saturday at the San Jose Sharks, and after that, they turn their full attention to the NHL's second season. Colorado will have at least three days to prepare for its yet to-be-decided opponent in the first round, which could begin as early as Wednesday.
"The desperation we've had to play with--certainly the last month--and the sacrifice guys have had to make to take hits, make plays, get pucks out of our zone, get pucks into their zone, those things all matter, especially come playoff time," Cole said. "I think if we continue that mindset that we've had for the past month and continue that for the playoffs, we're going to put ourselves in a good position to win some hockey games and do some damage."
A BARRIE GOOD YEAR: Tyson Barrie tied his career high with his 14th goal of the season, tallying at 5:17 of the second period to cut Colorado's deficit to 2-1 at the time. The shot was a thing of beauty, as he beat Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck short-side with a top-shelf wrister.
Video: WPG@COL: Barrie nets sharp-angle shot
The goal also marked Barrie's career-high 59th point the campaign, the most by an Avalanche defenseman since Ray Bourque also had 59 during the team's 2000-01 Stanley Cup-winning season. Sandis Ozolinsh's 68 points in 1996-97 is the Avalanche record while Steve Duchesne's 82 in 1992-93 with the Quebec Nordiques is the franchise's all-time mark
Barrie, who had 57 points last year, holds two of the top four spots in Avs history for points in a season by a rear guard.
The Victoria, British Columbia, has already set new franchise scoring records for a defenseman this year, having registered 75 goals, 232 assists and 307 points in his Avalanche career.
GRUUUB-ING: Goaltender Philipp Grubauer returned to the net, starting his ninth contest in the squad's last 10 outings. He finished with 34 saves, including stopping 17 shots in the opening period, to improve to 7-0-2 in his those starts.
"At this time of the year, you need exceptional goaltending," said head coach Jared Bednar postgame. "Average goaltending just isn't good enough, and we've been getting that, our goaltenders have been giving us a chance to win every night."
Grubauer started in a career-high eight consecutive outings from March 17 to April 1 before Semyon Varlamov took the crease in the Avs' previous game on Tuesday versus the Edmonton Oilers, the second half of a back-to-back set.
The German netminder entered Thursday's contest with an 8-2-2 record, 1.39 goals-against average, .957 save percentage and three shutouts in his previous 13 games (12 starts).
Video: Philipp Grubauer on clinching a playoff spot
MIKKO UPDATE: Avs forward Mikko Rantanen missed his seventh game with an upper-body injury, but he is making progress in his recovery.
Rantanen took to the ice prior to Colorado's morning skate on Thursday wearing a red, non-contact jersey and even participated in a few drills before the team session began.
"He's back on the ice today, he's wearing gear today," said Bednar. "He was on yesterday. Doing a little bit more every day, but no timetable for his return."
The right wing got hurt in the third period of the Avs' game on March 21 at the Dallas Stars. He is second on the club in scoring with a career-high 87 points (31 goals, 56 assists) in 74 games this season.
Video: Bednar on clinching a 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff spot
MORE POSTGAME NOTES: Colorado clinched its 24th Stanley Cup Playoff berth in franchise history and 15th since the franchise moved to Denver in 1995.
The Avalanche wrapped up its five-game season series against Winnipeg, winning its last three contests to finish 3-2-0 against the Jets. The Avs are 7-1-2 in their last 10 games against Central Division opponents.
Tyson Barrie has notched goals in consecutive contests and has 11 points (seven goals, four assists) over his last 10 outings. He is tied with Chicago's Erik Gustafsson for sixth among NHL blueliners in scoring this season.
Nathan MacKinnon's assist on the overtime goal was his 58th helper of the season, matching his career high from the 2017-18 season.