DENVER -- Wearing the black "16W" cap that represents his career-long mission, Ray Bourque playfully put teammate Joe Sakic in a headlock that signified gratitude as much as relief.
With one timely backhand, Sakic sent Bourque and Colorado to the Stanley Cup finals by scoring on a rebound 24 seconds into overtime to give the Avalanche a 2-1 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Monday night.
While the Avalanche are five years removed from a championship, Bourque will play for the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1990. In his 22nd season, he has yet to win the title and his cap represents the number of victories needed for the Cup.
''You go into every game with pressure, but it's a lot of fun,'' Bourque said. ''After you've won the game, it's a lot of relief and a lot of satisfaction. There was a lot of emotion at the end.''
Colorado, the NHL's top team during the regular season, made it out of the Western Conference finals for the first time in three years. The Avalanche lost Game 7 of the finals to the Dallas Stars in 1999 and 2000 but finished St. Louis off in five games.
''I didn't think it would take this long to get back to the finals,'' forward Stephane Yelle, who was a rookie when Colorado won it all in 1996. ''We had some great teams in the past. It took six years, but now we're here.''
Sakic's goal, his ninth of the playoffs, came while Blues defenseman Alexander Khavanov served a four-minute penalty for high-sticking, called with 2:16 left in regulation. The hit left Colorado forward Milan Hejduk bloodied, prompting the double-minor.
''I was just trying to protect myself,'' Khavanov said. ''It's pretty upsetting, but right now there is nothing I can do. It was an unfortunate call. I didn't mean to get my stick up.''
St. Louis coach Joel Quenneville was equally frustrated.
''This stage of the game is not a good time to go there,'' he said. ''I had some issues. An overtime power play puts you at a disadvantage, and that turned out to be the deciding factor. We can argue it, and I don't want to in this forum.''
Nothing came easy in this series as the teams ended with three straight overtime games, and it looked like another long night when Colorado failed to get a shot against rookie goalie Brent Johnson in the final two minutes of regulation.
Johnson, a final-hour replacement for struggling goalie Roman Turek, finished with 34 saves but fell short in his first career playoff start when Sakic crashed the net after Johnson stopped Rob Blake's initial shot from the right circle.
''I can't believe the season ended just like that. It's just a terrible feeling,'' Johnson said. ''The shot by Blake, all I know is it squeezed through. It was about a foot and a half behind me and Sakic came out of nowhere to put it in the empty net. I couldn't believe it was over.''
By avoiding a Game 6 in St. Louis, the Avalanche will enjoy a break while awaiting their next opponent. Defending champion New Jersey leads Pittsburgh 3-1 in the Eastern Conference finals heading into Game 5 on Tuesday night.
''If we could get two, three days to regroup and refuel, that would be plenty,'' Colorado coach Bob Hartley said. ''We're playing good hockey right now. We might as well get it on.''
Patrick Roy may be Colorado's best player at this point. He finished with 28 saves, including several big ones in the third period as he continued one of his best playoff runs in 16 seasons.
The goalie has won three Stanley Cups, including the one with the Avalanche in his first season in Colorado.
In a three-minute span, Roy stopped Pierre Turgeon, Keith Tkachuk, Sean Hill, Pavol Demitra and Scott Young to preserve a 1-1 tie. Demitra raised his hand to his head in disbelief and nearly slammed his stick to the glass after Roy gloved his point-blank shot at the left post with 11 minutes left.
''I thought I had it,'' Demitra said. ''The puck was jumping, I shot it quickly, but he made the save. We couldn't get enough shots past Roy.''
Johnson, who has played 211 fewer playoff games than Roy, was just as impressive, stopping Bourque on a sprawling save with 5:28 left. He also forced Blake to shoot wildly on a good chance in the slot 30 seconds later.
''He was awesome,'' Bourque said of Johnson, Colorado's fifth-round draft pick in 1995.
After being outshot in each of the first four games, Colorado held a 20-11 shot advantage after Hejduk beat Johnson between the legs on a power play at 11:20 of the second. Hejduk leads NHL playoff scorers with seven goals and 13 assists.
The Blues tied it 2:11 later when Bryce Salvador scored from 10 feet out on a pass from Cory Stillman. St. Louis forward Jamal Mayers made the play possible just seconds earlier by beating Colorado to a loose puck to prevent an icing call.
The hustle exemplified St. Louis' desperation as the Blues pulled out all the stops to avoid elimination. The strategy began when Quenneville benched Turek in favor of Johnson less than an hour before the game. Turek had allowed 14 goals in the series.
Johnson, who played 83 seconds in Game 4, responded by holding Colorado scoreless in the first period for the first time in the series.
The Avalanche made up for it by making their last shot count. ''It was real easy to chip it into the empty net,'' Sakic said.
Headlocks all around.
Notes: Avalanche C Peter Forsberg attended his first game since emergency surgery to remove his ruptured spleen on May 10. His recovery is going well, but Forsberg still expects to miss the rest of the playoffs. ... Colorado D Jon Klemm did not play after injuring his right knee in Game 4. Bryan Muir was activated as the team's sixth defenseman. ... St. Louis D Sean Hill left the game at 10:52 of the first after being hit in the right leg while blocking a shot. He returned in the second period. ... The Blues fell short in their attempt to make their first Stanley Cup finals appearance in 31 years.
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