The suitors weren’t exactly lining up for Tyler Bozak in free agency last summer, so he took the time to survey the landscape, consider his hockey future and mull over at least one other offer from within the Central Division.
Ultimately, he thought the best path was to stay put and take another shot with the St. Louis Blues.
Although the veteran forward had to take a one-year deal for the league minimum of $750,000, a substantial pay cut from the $5-million AAV he carried on is contract the previous three seasons, Bozak knew exactly where he stood in the organization and what he could bring, provided he could stay healthy after suffering through an injury-plagued campaign in 2021.
That investment by the Blues more than paid for itself on Wednesday night as the 36-year-old beat Darcy Keumper with a slapshot through traffic at 3:38 of the first overtime to propel his team to a 5-4 victory over the Colorado Avalanche to stave off elimination before a stunned crowd at Denver’s Ball Arena.
This was another one of those moments where an unlikely hero stepped to the forefront and delivered a memory that will last forever.
“Just got a little bounce up top and saw a lane to the net. In overtime, there’s definitely no such thing as a bad shot, so just tried to get it through on the traffic and it went in,” said Bozak, who was unsure if the puck changed direction off the stick or pants of an Avalanche defender. “All I know is that it went in and that’s all that matters. Just a resilient group of guys, got down and didn’t want the season to be over. It was an amazing hockey game. I’m sure everyone that was watching thought the same thing.
“Fought hard, got some big goals late. Was lucky enough to be on the end of the one in overtime, but yeah, it was awesome. We’re excited for the next game. There’s still a lot of work to be done. ”
That next game — Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinal — goes Friday night at Enterprise Center in St Louis.
As Marco Scandella returned to the Blues lineup on defence for the first time since May 8, head coach Craig Berube dressed 12 forwards and six blue-liners for the first time since Game 3 of an opening-round series with the Minnesota Wild that went six games.
Bozak played only 13 shifts in the game for 7:16 of ice time, but because of the trust his head coach has in him from coming through in the past when times were tough (including the 2019 Stanley Cup championship run), Craig Berube didn’t hesitate to throw his fourth line on the ice early in overtime — even after shortening his bench to three lines for the second half of the third period.
“Well, I think in the third, it’s just about getting back and tying it, so I’m rolling three lines most of the time. It’s not that you don’t want to play these guys, but you’re trying to catch up here and win a game and tie it up,” said Berube. “You get into OT, I think you’ve got to start over again. You’ve got to get your guys out there and rotate them and get playing because if you don’t, you’re going to burn your top nine out. They’re just going to play too much.”
By ending the game early in the fourth period, that didn’t end up being a concern for Berube or the Blues, who showed some serious desperation to keep their season alive.
Down 3-1 in the series, the Blues fell behind 3-0 by the time the game was just over 24 minutes old. They rallied with three consecutive goals only to see Avalanche centre Nathan MacKinnon score an electrifying end-to-end goal to complete a hat trick with 2:46 to go in regulation.
“We battle back and then we give up that goal like that. It could be really deflating, but our team has got a lot of guts and they’re a resilient bunch of guys,” said Berube. “We talked about what we were going to do with the goalie and stuff and it ended up working out. It’s just character and leadership. We’ve got a lot of character in that room, we all know that. This team has come from behind quite a bit this year in games, so they don’t give up. You’ve just got to keep playing and keep battling and they did that. That’s all on them.”
With Ville Husso on the bench in favour of an extra attacker, Blues defenceman Justin Faulk made a critical play to keep the puck in at the offensive blue line. As the play developed, Vladimir Tarasenko took a sharp-angle shot that Kuemper stopped but Robert Thomas pounced on the rebound to tie the game with 56 seconds remaining.
“You’ve got nothing to lose, so you might as well throw it all out there,” said Thomas, who scored his first two goals of the playoffs. “I think that was our mentality. It seemed to work.”
The Avalanche still lead the series 3-2, but despite a dominant 30 minutes of play, they were unable to close the Blues out and still need one more victory to advance to the Western Conference Final for the first time since 2002.
“They played with more desperation than us in the second half of the game,” said Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar. “You have to stay aggressive. You have to continue playing your game and believe in what you’re doing. For the most part, we’ve been doing that but it’s starting to look like you’re either the hammer or the nail in this series, so we have to go out and be the hammer.
“We have to keep moving forward and pressing and forcing them into mistakes. But it starts with the competitiveness and the puck decisions. As the game went on there, they had a little bit extra in the battle and we didn’t and our puck decisions were not good.”
The Blues’ victory spoiled what was a remarkable effort from MacKinnon, who had four points (three goals and one assist)
Two minutes after Jordan Kyrou had scored at 15:14 of the third period to tie the game, MacKinnon picked the puck up in the defensive zone, accelerated through the neutral zone, made an inside-out move to slide past Blues defenceman Nick Leddy and as the puck rolled slightly, he somehow found a way to maintain control at full speed to roof his shot to complete this highlight-reel moment.
“Obviously, that stings, especially when (MacKinnon) can go down and get us another one to take the lead back after we had been stumbling,” said Bednar. “Great speed coming through the neutral zone. We talked about getting back on the attack and starting our push and making sure that we were spending some time (in the offensive zone) and taking our shots when we had them.
“But, unbelievable individual effort to get around Leddy there and to still be able to get it to his forehand and put it in up top. It’s one of the prettiest goals that I’ve seen in a long time.”
MacKinnon was flying all night , but losing the game prevented him from being able to fully soak in the moment.
“It doesn’t matter,” said MacKinnon. “We lost. The playoffs aren’t for points and attention or whatever, it’s just to get wins. That’s how everyone feels in our room. We’re all tugging on the same rope and truly it does not matter about what kind of goals you score, as long as we can win.
“I was happier after Game 4. We’ve got to go get this done. But this should make our team a little harder, a little more grittier in these situations. You can’t win every series in four or five. They’re a great team and we’re excited to go have a huge challenge in St. Louis and try to close out a series.”
Over the next two days, there is sure to be plenty of chatter surrounding the narrative that the Avalanche have been bounced in the second round of the playoffs in each of the last three years but that’s just another example of dealing with outside noise.
That comes with the territory when a team is anointed as one of the Stanley Cup favourites.
The Avalanche are a mature group and they understand the best way to silence those doubters is secure one more victory, either Friday in St. Louis or Sunday in Denver.
“It’s the same as if you win a game. You enjoy it for three minutes and you move on. Here, it’s the same thing. You sulk for three minutes and then you move on,” said Avalanche captain Gabe Landeskog. “It’s as simple as that. It’s playoff hockey, it’s not supposed to be easy.
“You’ve got to have a short memory and move on.”