Columbus Blue Jackets right wing Cam Atkinson, left, and center Darryl Boyce, right, celebrate a goal by Atkinson in the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday, April 5, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Chris Schneider)
DENVER - Turns out, a sense of pride was a more powerful motivator than a sense of urgency.
With nothing to play for, the Columbus Blue Jackets flourished.
And with a potential playoff spot on the line, the Colorado Avalanche fizzled.
Cam Atkinson had his first career hat trick and Steve Mason stopped 35 shots, helping the Blue Jackets thwart Colorado's post-season aspirations—and put San Jose in the playoffs—with a 5-2 win over the Avalanche on Thursday night.
Rick Nash added two goals for the suddenly surging Blue Jackets, who have won four of five but are still guaranteed to finish with the worst record in the NHL.
"The last month or so, we've been playing for pride and trying to play some good hockey," Atkinson said.
This was a crushing loss for the Avalanche as they were officially eliminated from the playoff picture. As it was, they would've needed help—and lots of it—to crash the party.
Still, not taking care of their end of the bargain left a bitter taste.
"We knew what was at stake," rookie Gabriel Landeskog said. "We squeezed out sticks too tight tonight."
David Jones and Paul Stastny scored for a rested Colorado squad that hadn't played in nearly a week, only to start the biggest game of the season sluggish, trailing by two goals heading into the final period.
It was a gap they never could close.
Mason got the start in goal after Allen York tweaked his groin in the morning practice. This was Mason's first appearance since being struck in the mask by a shot from a teammate during a pregame skate on March 29.
And once again, Mason bottled up the Avalanche, making one glove save after another. He stonewalled Colorado last month as well for his only shutout of the season.
Mason took quite a bit of punishment in the third period.
First, he took a slap shot off the mask and then later absorbed a vicious hit from Jamie McGinn, who was shoved into the goaltender by defenceman Jack Johnson. Mason stayed down on the ice as the trainer came out to check on him, only to pop back up, grab his mask and skate back into the goal.
"Give him a lot of credit for taking that hit in the third, getting up and battling through it," interim coach Todd Richards said.
Fighting for their playoff lives, the Avalanche simply never got on track. Down 4-2, they pulled Semyon Varlamov with just under 4 minutes remaining, but couldn't score.
With 64 seconds remaining, Atkinson cemented the win with an empty-net goal, his fifth goal of the season.
After the game, and much to the teasing of his teammates, Atkinson posed for a picture holding all three of the pucks that found the net.
Not that he minded the ribbing.
"This definitely felt good," Atkinson said.
Colorado entered the contest trailing San Jose by four points for the eighth and final playoff spot.
Now, they have no shot to catch the Sharks. Colorado struggled down the stretch, dropping five of six to miss the playoffs to miss the playoff for a second straight season.
"We hoped we'd still have a chance," said a subdued Ryan O'Reilly, who sat at his locker still wearing his helmet long after the game. "We didn't play as well as we needed to play."
Nash scored two nifty goals, including one on a wrist shot during a 5-on-3 opportunity in the second period that gave the Blue Jackets a lead they wouldn't surrender.
The Columbus captain now has 29 goals, one away from reaching the 30 plateau for the seventh time in his last eight seasons.
However, Nash played only one shift in the third period due to an undisclosed injury. He's going to be re-evaluated before the finale against the New York Islanders on Saturday.
Varlamov turned in a clunker as he allowed four goals on 23 shots.
The young Russian goaltender came into the game as one of the hottest goalies in the league since mid-February, giving up less than two goals a game.
McGinn was in the lineup after missing a game with a back injury. He has 13 points in 16 games since the Avalanche acquired him at the trade deadline from San Jose, the team Colorado was chasing.
Asked before the game if it's salt in the wound that the team he came from is ahead of the Avalanche, McGinn simply said: "I guess so. But I can't worry about that stuff."
Colorado captain Milan Hejduk is on the fence about returning for a 14th season.
Hejduk is the last remaining player to the Avalanche's Stanley Cup days, but this has been a down season. He has just 14 goals this season.
Entering this year, Hejduk had reached the 20-goal mark in 11 straight seasons, which tied Joe Sakic's franchise record.
"We'll see after the season what the options will be," said Hejduk, who's second in franchise history in games (990), goals (371) and points (794). "At some point, you have to hang them up. We'll see."
NOTES: Colorado closes the season by hosting Nashville on Saturday. ... Landeskog has 267 shots this season, the second-most by a rookie left wing in NHL history. Alex Ovechkin of Washington has the top mark with 425 shots in 2005-06.