ST. LOUIS — The bitter reality of sparkling clean lockers following another first-round playoff loss is how the St. Louis Blues closed their book on the 2013-14 season.
It happened in 2013, too.
Of course 29 out of 30 teams finish short of their goal of winning the Stanley Cup, but the Blues' first-round loss to the Chicago Blackhawks seemed to carry a bit more extra weight in the frustration department.
"It's so fresh that it's really hard to look back on and reflect right now," Blues forward T.J. Oshie said Wednesday. "The shock is still kind of there of why we're not there."
Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong and coach Ken Hitchcock each discussed what they perceived as the team's lack of killer instinct on Tuesday.
Their remarks came after the Blues failed to close out playoff series for the second straight year despite building 2-0 leads against the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks.
"It's been said a lot in sports that stepping on the throat -- that final blow -- is a lot of times the toughest one to administer," Blues captain David Backes said.
Blues players, coaches and management felt the team had taken a step forward last spring despite the first-round loss to L.A.
That feeling is no longer present just days removed from another playoff defeat. Despite being third in the NHL with 130 wins and fourth in points with 280 over the last three seasons, the Blues are still looking for more playoff validation.
"It's still too fresh to probably come out of their with good lessons we're going to learn from another heart-breaking experience," said Backes, who played with a broken toe and other assorted ailments. "But hopefully that's one of the things that we can start to acquire ... that sour taste becomes so sour that you want to give that final blow as soon as you can and abruptly and definitively as possible."
Expected to be the difference-maker at playoff time, Blues goaltender Ryan Miller was unde pressure after being acquired from the Buffalo Sabres.
While Miller played well at times, his 2-4 record, 2.70 goals-against average and .897 save percentage were not enough to get the Blues into the second round.
"You're the goaltender, you're going to take a lot of the focus of everything," said Miller, 10-8-1 with a 2.47 goals-against average for the Blues during the regular season. "Just the way everything worked out, the trade and the mood around this making a step forward....it's pretty much inevitable unless we had won the Stanley Cup there was going to be a lot of criticism.
"I knew what to expect coming in and I'll take my share of the blame. I could have played better, but it is what it is."
Miller, 34, is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent July 1. Has he had any early contract discussions with the Blues?
"Yeah, I don't close any avenues with anybody, especially in this kind of profession. I'm just trying to make my best impression wherever I'm at," he said. "I know it didn't work out in this playoff series. I think it's a good group here and it's up to management to make decisions about my situation going forward."
Miller seems open to discuss a potential return with the Blues, but Armstrong on Tuesday said top goaltending prospect Jake Allen will definitely be with the team next season.
Blues backup goalie Brian Elliott is also eligible to become an unrestricted free agent, so Armstrong's first major decision will involve the goalies.
"I'm sure they'll want to have something...an answer on their side, before the draft," Miller said. "It's more directed towards Doug (Armstrong) and the coaching staff and how they kind of see this team being built. I liked my time here, (I'm) open to staying. I think it's a solid organization from the top down. We'll just see what happens."
Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk had trouble finding positives amidst the debris of another first-round loss.
"Not that we made excuses last year, but we took steps last year, I think, and this year, we took steps backwards," Shattenkirk said. "For guys like us to be in that same position, if we're going to learn from it, we're going to have to change and do something about it ... win two more games and win the series, close the series out and we didn't do it."
Backes said the entire team can share the blame.
"I think that's why we're more somber this year than we have been in the past, because those expectations were there this year," Backes said. "We felt like we have a good group and we didn't get it done. It's going to (stink) all summer thinking about that every time, watching these other teams play.
"We think we're better than (Chicago) in our heads and could outplay them in a seven-game series. Not getting it done, even in the first round, is something that stinks."
Oshie believes the team's nucleus has what it takes to be successful in the playoffs.
"It feels like a big letdown," Oshie said. "I don't know if it's a step back. We're still all in a little bit of shock and awe, I think, that we're not coming to the rink and practicing still.
"It's hard ... I think everyone feels the same way. No one feels worse than the players do: the coaches, the general manager, the fans ... no one feels worse about losing out than the players do. It's hard, it's hard to talk about."