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Darren Helm’s late goal sends Avalanche past Blues, into Western Conference finals for first time in 20 years

The Blues' Niko Mikkola (77) reacts in the foreground as the Avalanche celebrate Darren Helm's late series-clinching goal.Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Colorado coach Jared Bednar had been looking for a little extra aggressiveness from veteran center Darren Helm.

Bednar got his wish on Friday night.

Helm scored with 5.6 seconds left and Darcy Kuemper stopped 18 shots as the Avalanche finished off their Western Conference second-round series with a 3-2 win over the Blues in Game 6 in St. Louis.

“We wanted him to be assertive and not so safe,” Bednar said.

J.T. Compher scored twice for Colorado, which advanced to the Western Conference finals for first time since 2002. The Avalanche had been eliminated in the second round each of the past three years.

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Colorado opens the series against Edmonton on Tuesday night in Denver.

Jordan Kyrou and Justin Faulk scored for St. Louis. and Ville Husso made 36 saves.

On the winning goal, the 35-year-old Helm blasted a shot from the faceoff circle that went over the glove of Husso.

“We had three guys going hard to the net,” Helm said. “I was just kind of trailing. The pass bounced off the side wall. I just wanted to get the puck on the net and it found its way.”

It was the second series-clinching goal for Helm. As a member of the Detroit Red Wings, he nailed down the Western Conference championship with an overtime goal in Game 5 against Chicago, exactly 13 years ago.

“There’s no other guy that deserves it as much as he does,” Colorado forward Gabriel Landeskog said. “You talk about his work ethic, but he’s the guy that comes to the rink with a smile on his face, gets along with everybody.”

Kuemper, who missed part of the first-round series against Nashville with an eye injury, improved to 6-2. He also enjoyed watching Helm record the biggest tally of the series.

“A super-clutch goal,” Kuemper said. “It’s always fun to see someone like Darren, who plays the game so hard, [but] always doesn’t get rewarded with the points, to come up with a big goal like that is really special.”

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Compher, who had been held scoreless over the Avalanche’s first nine games of the playoffs, broke free at the perfect time. He pounced on the rebound of a shot from Josh Manson to tie the score 1-1 early in the second period. Compher then tied it 2-2 on a wrist shot from the faceoff dot with 9:41 left in the third.

Husso, who have up 13 goals on 93 shots over the previous three games, rebounded with a much stronger effort.

Colorado dominated play for long stretches, but could not solve Husso, who regained his job after Jordan Binnington went down with a lower body injury in Game 3. Husso robbed Nazem Kadri from close range early in the third period.

Husso had a 37-save shutout in a Game 1 win over Minnesota in the first round.

Faulk scored late in the first period on a wrist shot from between the circles. He sailed into the slot before taking a pass from Robert Thomas. The drive grazed off the arm of Kuemper. It was Faulk’s first goal of the postseason after handing out seven assists.

Kyrou also missed the net on a breakaway in the second period and had shot from close range stopped by Manson in the defensive play of the game after Kuemper was out of position.

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Kyrou then converted on a 2-on-1 off a pass from Brayden Schenn to put the Blues up 2-1 at 9:34 of the second period.

“We feel like we’re a good team and we let that series slip,” Schenn said.

St. Louis coach Craig Berube added: “It’s tough, a tough way to end it. That’s the way it goes. Our guys battle hard.”

The Blues forced a Game 5 by beating Colorado 5-4 in overtime on Wednesday on a goal by Tyler Bozak.

The Avalanche bounced back from that setback with an impressive effort.

“From the drop of the puck, we were ready to go,” Bednar said. “You could tell the belief was there.”

Connor McDavid (right) was all smiles as he celebrated his Game 5 overtime goal with Oilers teammate Cody Ceci.Jeff McIntosh/Associated Press

McDavid, Oilers score trip to Western finals

The Edmonton Oilers have a rich history. Connor McDavid and Co. are eager to add another memorable chapter.

McDavid’s overtime goal Thursday night in Calgary clinched the first playoff Battle of Alberta in 31 years as the Oilers defeated the rival Flames, 5-4, to move onto the Western Conference finals.

Whether the Oilers face Colorado or St. Louis, the excitement level in Edmonton is already at a high level.

Edmonton won the Stanley Cup five times between 1984 and 1990 with teams led by Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and Jari Kurri. The franchise made another final in 2006, but lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games before missing the playoffs for 10 straight seasons.

Despite a roster featuring McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the Oilers had advanced to the second round just once in the star forwards’ six previous campaigns — until now.

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“We’re proud of the Hall of Fame people that have come through our organization,” interim head coach Jay Woodcroft said after eliminating the Flames. “We’re proud of the different runs that the team has gone on throughout the years.

But our team wants to contribute to that type of history," he added. "Our team is looking to make its own mark.”

McDavid and Draisaitl lead the playoffs with a jaw-dropping 26 points each; McDavid had 12 against Calgary, Draisaitl an incredible 17 — in five games.

“We’ve had a lot of down moments,” Draisaitl said looking back. “A lot of moments where people were hard on us. We haven’t won yet. We’re only halfway, but it feels good to take that next step.”

Edmonton goalie Mike Smith outdueled Calgary counterpart and Vezina Trophy finalist Jacob Markstrom, while McDavid and Draisaitl had a clear edge over the Flames’ best players, including Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk. Edmonton lost 9-6 to Calgary in a memorable Game 1, but then ripped off four straight wins by a combined 19-11 to clinch.

“They made it hard on us . . . we had to push back twice as hard,” Draisaitl said. “But I think it shows our effort in our group, the type of guys that we have in our room, the resiliency to stick with it and get back to our game and take control.”

What was it like to take part in the first Battle of Alberta since Esa Tikkanen scored in overtime of Game 7 for the Oilers back in 1991?

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“Special,” McDavid said. “The fans were amazing in both buildings — especially in Edmonton. The energy and vibe around the city has been amazing.”

That’s certain to continue with the Oilers and a fan base that’s endured plenty of lean years now just eight wins from the Cup.

“I’m sure the people at home are very excited,” Draisailt said. “But we’re only halfway. We’re very excited. We’re very happy, very proud of what we’ve achieved so far this post-season, but there’s more to be had for us. That’s our ultimate goal. Be proud of it — happy — but we’re getting ready for the next round.”

Igor Shesterkin and the Rangers will try to stop the Hurricanes in Game 6 with their season on the line.Chris Seward/Associated Press

Igor Shesterkin aims to save Rangers’ season

Igor Shesterkin pulls the mask up on top of his head, takes a sip of water and looks around. Instead of squirting the bottle through the cage and shuffling back into position, he takes a few seconds to soak in the atmosphere.

“He has that grin like he’s loving every aspect of it,” retired goaltender Martin Biron said. “He’s got some cocky confidence to him.”

That confidence has made Shesterkin the face of the Rangers franchise and successor to Henrik Lundqvist as the new king of New York.

The 26-year-old Russian goaltender now hears fans yelling, “I-gor! I-gor!” in the same cadence of “Hen-rik! Hen-rik!” that reverberated off the walls of Madison Square Garden for more than a decade. He knows he is charged with trying to win the Original Six organization’s first Stanley Cup title since 1994.

The Rangers are down 3-2 and face a must-win Game 6 at home Saturday night against Carolina in the second round.

“I feel no pressure as a player,” Shesterkin said recently through an interpreter. “I do understand the gravity of the situation. This city, this team definitely deserve a Cup and we’re giving our best to try to make that happen.”

Shesterkin has the talent and the personality to handle being at the center of the maelstrom that is tending goal for the Rangers. Being a starting goaltender in any NHL market comes with a certain spotlight, but it shines brighter in New York City, especially given there has only been one hockey championship parade down the “Canyon of Heroes” in more than 80 years.

“He wants that mantle,” said Mike Richter, who was the goalie in 1994 when the Rangers won the Cup. “You can’t back into New York or any starting goaltending position in the NHL and decide that you don’t want to play a pivotal role in the success or failure of the team.”

Arguably no one played more of a pivotal role in his team’s success this season than Shesterkin, who led the league with a 2.07 goals-against average and .935 save percentage to help the Rangers make the traditional 16-team playoffs for the first time since 2017.

He is a Hart Trophy finalist for NHL MVP, the first goalie to finish top three in voting since Sergei Bobrovsky in 2017 and just the second since Lundqvist a decade ago.

Lundqvist, who was bought out by the Rangers in 2020 in part to clear a path for Shesterkin, knew right away his heir apparent was right for the job.

“He worked hard — great attitude from Day One — and you could tell his skill level was there,” said Lundqvist, now an analyst for MSG Network. “The success we’re seeing, it’s not a surprise at all.”