ST. LOUIS -- Darren Helm was the unlikely hero for the Colorado Avalanche in their Game 6 elimination of the St. Louis Blues on Friday night, as the 35-year-old fourth liner scored the game-winning goal with 5.6 seconds left in regulation.
"Super clutch goal. It's always fun to see someone like Darren, who plays the game so hard but doesn't always get rewarded with the points, get rewarded like that," said Avalanche goalie Darcy Kuemper, who made 18 saves during the 3-2 win in St. Louis.
The Avalanche will face the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference final starting Tuesday night in Denver. It marks the first conference final appearance for Colorado since 2002.
His goal on Friday night came as the seconds were ticking down to what felt like a second consecutive overtime between the Avalanche and Blues. Defenseman Erik Johnson entered the Blues' zone with 9 seconds left, passing to forward Logan O'Connor, who sent the puck across the zone with 7.5 seconds remaining. Helm collected it, shot the puck and beat Blues goalie Ville Husso (36 saves), sending the Avalanche bench into celebration and the Enterprise Center crowd into stunned silence.
"Rush up the ice. Two guys going in. Pass off the side wall. I just wanted to put a puck on net and it went in. Felt great," said Helm, smiling.
Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said he wasn't sure how much time was left when Helm took his shot.
"You could feel that the time was ticking down. When I saw the puck pop out to that side of the ice, I kind of glanced over and I saw Helm coming downhill on it. And I was saying to myself, 'Just shoot it ... just shoot it,'" he said. "After I saw the net bulge, I looked up and saw the time and our bench was already celebrating. So I was kind of last to the party there."
Before he celebrated on the bench, Colorado defenseman Josh Manson admitted that he wasn't watching the play.
"I was on the bench. I think I was praying. I think I had my head down. I wasn't even watching, just praying," he said. "When it went in ... it was crazy. Just the best feeling. Almost relief, you know? You're so excited but it's almost like 'thank goodness it's over. We got the job done.'"
Helm played 14 years with the Red Wings before signing with the Avalanche last summer.
"Colorado was the place I wanted to come. I got the call and I was extremely excited to get the opportunity. I'm lucky to be here," he said.
There was a time when Detroit and Colorado had the most heated rivalry in hockey. A reporter noted the irony that a former Red Wing could be the hero for the Avalanche.
"That rivalry ... I was too young to even know what was going on," said Helm.
"Yeah, right," said Manson, drawing laughs at the expense of his veteran teammate.
"Nice one," said Helm.
The Avalanche had only two players with Stanley Cup rings on the ice in Game 6: André Burakovsky, who won in 2018 with the Washington Capitals; and Helm, who won with the 2008 Red Wings. Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog remembered watching the Red Wings as a teenager in Sweden to see players like Nicklas Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg, and appreciating Helm's work ethic, too.
"There's no other guy that deserves it as much as he does. He's a guy that comes to the rink, smile on his face, gets along with everybody, leads by example," said Landeskog.
If Helm is a model of resiliency, so were the Avalanche in Game 6. The Blues had stunned them with a Game 5 rally, winning in overtime to avoid elimination and to bring the series back to St. Louis.
"That one stung. Because I know how badly our guys want it. It was frustrating. It was depressing. And then you have 48 hours to go again," said Bednar.
But Colorado carried much of Game 6, with the Blues effectively counterpunching.
The Avalanche had the better of the play at 5-on-5 in the first period, with Husso coming up with key stops on Mikko Rantanen and Landeskog. But it was the Blues that left the period with the one-goal advantage. Defenseman Niko Mikkola kept the puck in the Avalanche zone at the point and sent it over to Robert Thomas. The Blues center, who had two goals in Game 5 for his first two points of the series, found defenseman Justin Faulk open across the zone. Faulk snapped a shot over Kuemper's shoulder for the 1-0 lead with a minute left in the first period.
The Blues opened the second period with sloppy and uninspired play, and the Avalanche made them pay. Forward J.T. Compher followed up a Manson shot by tucking the puck past Husso on the doorstep of the crease at 5:19 of the second period. It was Compher's first of the postseason.
St. Louis regained the lead thanks to a misplay by Colorado defenseman Jack Johnson, who entered the series in Game 4 after a season-ending injury to defenseman Samuel Girard. Johnson attempted to keep the puck at the St. Louis blueline but fumbled it away to Brayden Schenn to spark a 2-on-1 for the Blues. With Manson sliding to protect against the pass, Schenn still found Kyrou for his seventh of the postseason at 9:34.
The Blues had a couple of chances to build the lead that they squandered, including an open net on the power play that saw Manson save a goal and a breakaway chance for Kyrou that he missed. The second period ended with St. Louis up 2-1.
In the third period, Husso continued his strong play but defenseman Colton Parayko -- who had a gaffe-filled game -- put the puck into the crowd for a delay of game penalty at 8:19. The Blues' penalty worked hard to kill off the Avalanche power play, but with one second remaining on it Compher scored his second of the net past Husso to tie the game 2-2 at 10:18.
Then Helm played the unlikely hero, eliminating the Blues.
St. Louis had trouble recovering from the loss of starting goalie Jordan Binnington to injury in Game 3, after a controversial collision that involved Colorado center Nazem Kadri. There were moments where they looked like the Avalanche's equal, even in Game 6, but they were fleeting.
"Overall, it's a very disappointing season. We're better than what we've shown against these guys. We could've got that to seven. But when we lost Binner ... there was a good chance there," said captain Ryan O'Reilly. "It's on myself, too, to kind of find a way to rally the group and respond the right way. But we didn't. It's disappointing."
Meanwhile, the Avalanche earned their conference final showdown against the Oilers after three straight postseasons in which they lost in the second round.
"You have to enjoy the journey," said Colorado star Nathan MacKinnon. "Obviously, the job's not finished, but it's a great accomplishment for us. There's been some dark times. It definitely felt like we outplayed them this series. We deserved a good bounce at the end."