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Varlamov's 47 saves help Avalanche clinch berth

by Rick Sadowski

DENVER -- Goalie Semyon Varlamov made a season-high 47 saves, and the Colorado Avalanche clinched their first Stanley Cup Playoff berth since 2009-10 with a 3-2 win against the San Jose Sharks at Pepsi Center on Saturday.

The Avalanche (47-21-6) moved into second place in the Central Division, one point ahead of the Chicago Blackhawks (100-99).

"Who would have thought, eh?" Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said. "It's pretty impressive for our group. Now we're a point ahead of them with a game in hand, which is even better for us, but there's a lot of hockey left for us. It will be interesting to see how things are going to go at the end."

Varlamov, who made 20 saves in the third period, won his NHL-leading 37th game and the Avalanche reached the 100-point mark for the first time since 2003-04 with eight games to play, six on the road.

"Our goalie was phenomenal," Roy said. "He made a lot of big saves for us. He was moving well in his crease. In my opinion, it looked pretty easy for him. He made a lot of saves a lot easier than they appeared. [San Jose] is a good team and they shoot from everywhere."

Varlamov is 7-1-1 this season when facing 40 or more shots, and he's 6-0-1 when making 40-plus saves.

He credited his teammates, who blocked 25 shots Saturday, five by Andre Benoit and four by Nate Guenin.

"We did a good job," Varlamov said. "I can tell we have been waiting for this moment for the last couple of years. Right now we are all excited, the organization, the boys, because after this game we are in a playoff spot finally. I'm sure we will be excited about it. It’s going to be so much fun to play in the playoffs."

The Sharks outshot the Avalanche 20-8 in the third period, collecting five on two power plays that included a 4-on-3 advantage after left wing Ryan O'Reilly was assessed his first penalty of the season, in his 72nd game, for playing with a broken stick after a faceoff.

"I'm guessing [Varlamov] was the first star," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "He should be. We must have thrown some pucks at the net. We were in their end. We had the puck a lot. But give Varlamov credit."

John Mitchell, who replaced Duchene on a line with O'Reilly and Jamie McGinn, said, "I can't really describe in words what [Varlamov] means to this team, making close to 50 saves. For him to stand on his head like that ... he's been doing it all year long. He's certainly something special."

The Avalanche took a 3-1 on Mitchell's power-play goal at 6:32 of the second period. McGinn took a shot that caromed off the end boards to Mitchell, who was on the goal line to goalie Alex Stalock's left when he shot the puck inside the near post.

"It banked off the boards and it even hit the back of the net right off the curve," said Mitchell, who missed the previous four games because of a back injury. "It came right to me slow enough so I could get a forehand shot and I just one-timed it into the back of the net. I was just at the right place at the right time.

"It was good to get back in it and get my feet wet. I wasn't expecting to play quite that much (18:46), but with [Duchene] going down it was just an opportunity for me to step in and fill a role."

The Sharks pulled within 3-2 at 8:35 of the second on a goal by defenseman Dan Boyle, who ended a 30-game drought Thursday against the Winnipeg Jets. James Sheppard was in the left corner after winning a draw and passed to Boyle in the lower right circle for a shot that went into the net off Varlamov's glove.

The Avalanche took a 2-1 lead in the first period on goals by Paul Stastny and Cody McLeod, who has three of his five goals this season in the past five games.

McLeod broke a 1-1 tie at 10:34 on a shorthanded breakaway after Nick Holden's clear from his end deflected off Boyle's glove at the San Jose blue line. McLeod gained possession and shot the puck between Stalock's legs.

It was the Avalanche's third shorthanded goal of the season and the fifth allowed by the Sharks.

"Their second goal was just one of those bad bounces," Boyle said. "I took my eye off the puck for a fraction of a second to make sure I wasn't going to get drilled. I just caught a piece of it and missed it. That's an unfortunate bounce. I was obviously very upset, but these things happen."

Stastny opened the scoring at 1:33. Gabriel Landeskog won a battle for the puck behind the net and passed to Stastny, who scored with a shot from below the left circle.

The Sharks tied the game at 3:07 with a power-play goal from Joe Pavelski. Joe Thornton got the puck to Pavelski in the slot for a backhand between Varlamov's stick and his right pad.

It was the sixth power-play goal in three games for the Sharks and the sixth allowed by the Avalanche in six games.

"[Varlamov] played a good game," Pavelski said. "We had some traffic there, we had some looks. He made some of the saves he had to. They blocked some shots. You've got to give them credit."

The Avalanche lost center and leading scorer Matt Duchene to a knee injury on his first shift, 32 seconds into the game. He will have an MRI on Sunday.

"We'll certainly know more after that," Roy said. "That's all I can say for now. Obviously he's disappointed."

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