Mason shines as Blues blank Avalanche

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DENVER (AP) -- 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 defenseman 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 what 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."

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