Arms outstretched while giving the home crowd bad news, you could forgive NHL referee Graham Skiliter if those arms were looking for a hug after a controversy-marred night at the Pepsi Center. In that moment, Skiliter was informing the announced crowd of 13,890 the Colorado Avalanche had not tied the game as the play in question was offsides.
That call, which comes with plenty of questions of its own based on how the rules are written, essentially sealed the fate of the Avalanche as they fell to the visiting St. Louis Blues, 4-3. Colorado mounted a spirited rally after entering the game's final frame down 3-1 but couldn't get it done in the end and the Avs lost their third consecutive game.
"A lot of chances," Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon said. "They had a good second and we fell behind. We played well in the third and just couldn't get it done."
Colorado scored the opening tally on the night, a power-play goal from Alexander Kerfoot, in the first period and finished the period up a goal while leading 16-8 in shots. The fun quickly ended as the Blues made the second period their own, outshooting Colorado 17-14 and scoring three times, including a Paul Stastny goal that gave him his 600th career point.
"We switched up the units a little bit," MacKinnon explained of Colorado's dangerous power play. "I think we just got too passive in the last few games. We only had two tonight. Tonight would have been a good night to have four or five like we usually do but that's the way it is. [Kerfoot] is a good passer and [Erik Johnson] can shoot it and obviously, Mikko [Rantanen] is good and smart down low."
The big difference between this early version of the Avalanche and last year's lethargic entity came in the third period when they actually mounted a comeback that began with a Blake Comeau goal about as bizarre as you'll ever see. Comeau carried the puck and cut to the front of the net with Blues defender Robert Bortuzzo draped over him but lost the handle while Bortuzzo took out Blues goaltender Carton Hutton and then laid on him for several seconds while the Avalanche regained possession of the puck and it found its way back to Comeau for a tap-in to a vacated net.
"Usually when we get down 3-1 the past couple seasons we just fold up," MacKinnon admitted. "But when we got down 3-1 in the second, we really pushed and it was nice to do that."
St. Louis challenged the play for goaltender interference but replays showed Bortuzzo initiated the contact with Hutton, then laid on him for several seconds before getting up and allowing Hutton to try to get back into the net and make a save. The challenge was reviewed extensively and ultimately determined to be a good goal, bringing the Avalanche within one goal.
Bortuzzo would find redemption with a goal of his own just minutes later and seemingly put the game out of reach as his goal made it 4-2 in favor of St. Louis but the nightmare wasn't over for Hutton quite yet.
A crazy bounce off the back boards on a dump in from Matt Duchene created another empty-net goal for the Avalanche as Kerfoot put his second of the night in while Hutton, who had left to play the puck behind the net, desperately scrambled to get back into position, and suddenly the Avalanche were down just one goal with four minutes and 20 seconds remaining in the game thanks to a gift from the hockey gods.
"[Comeau's] goal was really funny," MacKinnon said with a chuckle. "We were laughing about it on the bench. Kerfoot's was another lucky one. Even our power play goal was kind of a lucky one, it just kind of ping-ponged in."
Then came a play that only made Skiliter and crew's night even longer as the Avalanche tied the game on a one-timer by Mikko Rantanen off a beautiful feed from Sven Andrighetto but replays showed Andrighetto had initially received the puck from Nikita Zadorov before clearing the offensive zone, making him offsides. The Blues utilized the new rules this year marking a difference between offsides challenges and other kinds of challenges to their advantage and successfully had the game-tying goal overturned.
Despite consistent zone pressure and multiple attempts in close in the final two minutes, Hutton ultimately slammed the door shut and the Blues walked away with the two points.
For Skiliter, that much-needed hug may remain ever elusive while he's in Colorado.