DENVER – Usually, the bushy beard is a playoff thing.
Yet with the St. Louis Blues fighting for their playoff lives as far back as February, goalie Chris Mason decided to start his early.
Now it’s thick and woolly – and he won’t be shaving it anytime soon.
Mason made 28 saves for his sixth shutout of the season, helping the Blues take the sixth playoff spot in the Western Conference with a 1-0 win over the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday in the regular-season finale.
The Blues, in the playoffs for the first time in five years, will face Vancouver in the opening round.
“I got a two month head start on the playoff beard,” Mason said, grinning. “Hopefully, it gets a lot longer.”
The Blues appeared to be done. They were at the bottom of the conference in mid-February, struggling to find an identity.
They turned it around, finishing an NHL-best 25-9-7 in the second half.
Mason credits that to resiliency.
“One of the biggest things is we’ve really bounced back after bad games,” he said. “We cut off slumps before they had a chance to start.”
Not that there’s been many, especially in the last few weeks. The Blues went 9-1-1 down the stretch.
“Our guys have worked hard all year,” coach Andy Murray said.
The win Sunday allowed St. Louis to leapfrog Anaheim and Columbus for the sixth seed. Although the Blues tied the Blue Jackets in points, the Blues won the tiebreaker.
By moving up, the Blues dodged Presidents’ Trophy-winning San Jose in the first round, not to mention Detroit.
As Mason sees it, the consolation prize isn’t much better.
“I don’t think they have a weakness in their game,” Mason said about the Canucks. “We’re going to have our work cut out for us. It’s going to be a big challenge for us.”
The Avalanche (32-45-5) finished last in the Western Conference for the first time since moving to Denver in 1995.
Could changes be in order?
“We have to find ways to improve our team,” Avalanche coach Tony Granato explained.
Asked if he expected to be back next season, Granato said, “I’ve got a lot of pride in this organization, I like it. We’ll get ready to do our work in the summer.”
The injury-riddled Avalanche were rarely at full strength this season, missing players like captain Joe Sakic, offensive threat Paul Stastny and defenceman Adam Foote for long stretches.
“It’s just been a tough year,” John-Michael Liles said. “In a perfect world we would have been in the playoffs, but this isn’t a perfect world. We did all that we could.”
Brad Boyes scored the only goal of the game early in the first period. It was his team-leading 33rd goal of the season.
“I had a lot of room. Just tried to get it upstairs,” Boyes said.
Although the Avalanche were hit hard by injuries, Milan Hejduk managed to stay quite healthy.
No bad bumps, bruises or bouts with sickness have sidelined him this season. He played in all 82 games for the first time since the 2003-04 season.
Hejduk finished with 27 goals, the second straight season he’s led the team.
Now he’s already turned the page on the disappointing season.
“This wasn’t what any of us wanted. It wasn’t fun,” Hejduk said. “I never want to go through a season like this.”
Mason wasn’t tested all that often until the third period. He stopped 14 shots in the first 40 minutes, and 14 over the last 20.
His biggest saves were when he stuck his left pad out to prevent Cody McLeod from jamming in a rebound early in the third and stopping a Wojtek Wolski blast with just under 5 minutes remaining.
“Chris was the difference in the game today,” Murray said.
Has been for a while. Mason has started the last 38 games, turning in a 24-8-6 mark.
He thought he might get the day off Sunday, but with a chance to slip into the No. 6 spot, back in net Mason went.
“Just another game – got to get ready to play,” he said.
The Blues’ late-season surge has surprised Mason and his teammates.
“It’s really unbelievable,” he said. “It’s hard to comprehend at this point. Every game we’ve played has been this playoff mentality.
“I’m sure it’s going to sink in after it’s all said and done. It’s been a lot of fun. Now the real test begins.”
Notes: Avalanche prospect Colby Cohen’s overtime goal lifted Boston University to a 4-3 win over Miami University in the NCAA championship game Saturday night. Fellow Avalanche draft pick Kevin Shattenkirk had an assist on the goal to give the Terriers their fifth national title. … Colorado F Ian Laperriere was honoured by the Avalanche on Sunday, a day after playing in his 1,000th NHL game.