DENVER – Semyon Varlamov shines in shootouts even if he loathes them.
The young Russian goaltender stopped both shots he faced in the shootout as the Colorado Avalanche held off the Edmonton Oilers for a 3-2 win on Saturday to keep within striking distance of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Although Varlamov says he doesn’t particularly care for shootouts, he’s still 7-0 in them this season and has allowed just two goals in 21 attempts.
“I can’t say I do anything special,” said Varlamov, who finished with 28 saves. “I just watch the player and try to read.”
He certainly read Jordan Eberle and Sam Gagner. Varlamov came out at Eberle, causing him to lose the puck, and then thwarted Gagner’s wrist shot.
Milan Hejduk led off the shootout by sending a shot over the shoulder of Nikolai Khabibulin and Peter Mueller soon followed with a similar shot.
That was more than enough scoring for Varlamov.
“I think we feel pretty confident going to OT and shootouts,” said Hejduk, whose team improved to 13-4 in games that go beyond regulation. “The more you win, the more confidence you build, I guess.”
Cody McLeod and Mueller added goals in regulation for the surging Avalanche, who have won seven of their past 10 games.
Ryan Smyth and Taylor Hall scored for the Oilers.
This is a pivotal stretch for the Avalanche, who have one more home game before venturing out on the road for three straight. They entered the day in the thick of the Western Conference post-season chase, a point back for the last spot.
“To be in the mix, that’s a good thing,” Hejduk said. “We only have 12 games left, so it’s going to be tough to get in, but I think we have the team to do it.”
The Oilers had the best scoring chance in overtime on a breakaway, only to have Varlamov stop a wrist shot from Ales Hemsky.
Colorado also caught a break midway through the third period, when Hemsky’s goal was waved off after Gagner made incidental contact with Varlamov near the net.
The ruling left Edmonton players frustrated.
“They said I was in the crease,” Gagner said. “I was trying to stay out of the way of the goalie and I thought I did. I thought it was a good goal.”
So did his coach, Tom Renney.
“I think (Gabriel) Landeskog made contact and pushed Sam into the goaltender’s line of doing his job,” Renney said. “That’s too bad. It was a great play all around. To me, it was a good goal.”
The Oilers later scored the equalizer as Hall knocked in a rebound underneath Varlamov.
“Hallsy is such a competitor and is so driven, he’s going to find a way,” Renney said. “He did. He helped us get a point today.”
The game featured a matchup of two of the best young players in the league and solid candidates for the Calder Trophy, which is given to the league’s top rookie.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Landeskog were taken with the first and second overall picks, respectively, last summer and have lived up to the lofty expectations.
Landeskog ranks second among first-year players in points (43) and goals (18). He’s also the only NHL rookie to lead his team in goals.
Despite missing 12 games with a shoulder injury, Nugent-Hopkins has 15 goals and 25 assists.
Mueller was the beneficiary of Hejduk’s near-goal midway through the second period. Hejduk skated in on Khabibulin and tried to sneak in a shot with his forehand, only to reverse his field and attempt a backhand. Khabibulin stopped the shot, but slid out of position.
With the puck spinning on the doorstep of the crease, Mueller simply nudged it across the line.
Known more for his gritty play than goal scoring, McLeod tied the game at 1 early in the second period. He was knocked to his knees in front of the net, but sprung back up in time to receive a pass from Ryan Wilson, which McLeod lined past Khabibulin. Although McLeod has just six goals on the season, he has two over his past three games.
The Oilers had several scoring chances early in the game, but Shawn Horcoff’s wrist shot clanged off the right post and Smyth couldn’t quite stuff in a shot near the goal a few minutes later.
With 36.1 seconds remaining in the opening period, Smyth, a former Avs player, managed to put Edmonton on the board when he poked in a loose puck past a sprawled-out Varlamov. It was Smyth’s 19th goal of the season.
NOTES: Avs F Matt Duchene (right ankle) is expected to be sidelined 3 to 4 weeks. … Oilers F Ben Eager (flu) sat out a second straight game. … Varlamov is 6-2-0 in his past eight starts. … With five shots on goal Saturday, Landeskog tied the Colorado/Quebec franchise record for most by a rookie in a season. He has taken 232 shots, which matches the mark set by former Nordiques star Peter Stastny in 1980-81.