St. Louis Blues

Blues make strides, but result is the same —no Stanley Cup

AP

Let’s file this one under “Opportunity, Missed.”

Big time.

Sure, the St. Louis Blues were two wins away from their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1970. Their season ended Wednesday night in San Jose with a 5-2 loss to the Sharks in Game 6 of the Western Conference final.

Yes, they were 4-6 in home playoff games and 10-10 in the playoffs overall. There’s also the unsightly matter of a 1-6 record in games when they were leading a playoff series.

But remember this, dejected Blues fans: Who among you sat there before the playoffs began and said anything that remotely resembled “Why of course they will knock off Chicago and Dallas to reach the conference final?”

It was great to see the entire region get behind the Blues, a franchise that does its best to keep its fans happy. Sports fans and just regular folks that never paid attention to the Blues or hockey were suddenly watching games, buying tickets and t-shirts, living and dying with each goal.

It was great to see and living proof of the Blues’ popularity, especially with the Rams slinking off to L.A. and leaving their dedicated fan base without NFL football and searching for another local team they could get behind.

Even in this Cardinals-enriched baseball region, the Blues put early-season baseball on the back-burner while hockey took center stage. It’s been quite a while since we’ve seen that, but it again provided proof that if anything even close to a Stanley Cup being paraded down Market Street ever occur, it just might set off a New Madrid Fault-like earthquake of hockey craziness never seen before.

The Blues provided plenty of hope and excitement. They beat the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks in the first round in a wild seven-game series, then were forced to seven games again to beat the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs, the Dallas Stars.

As a veteran of Blues playoff runs past, you remember the recent three straight first-round losses. You remember the lack of production from top players, inconsistent goaltending and a frequent ability to commit a turnover or make a mistake at the exactly wrong time.

All of those problems crept up during a 4-2 series loss to the Sharks that saw the Blues drop four of the final five games, to be sure.

However, the Blues had perhaps their best chance in decades to play for a Stanley Cup. No doubt about that.

All those Blues alumni, everyone from Bobby Plager and Garry Unger to Brett Hull, Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger, knew this team was so close to a shot at the Stanley Cup it could taste it.

Two of the Blues’ most dreaded playoff foes in recent years, Chicago and Los Angeles, were long gone from the tournament. If there was ever a year where the Blues had a chance, this was it.

The Blues have more regular-season wins in the last five seasons under Ken Hitchcock (224) than any other NHL team. They set a franchise-record with three straight regular seasons of 107 or more points and fill Scottrade Center to capacity on most nights, but a shot at the Stanley Cup remains an elusive goal.

Remember this — there are no guarantees. Reaching the Western Conference final for the first time in 15 years was great, but it doesn’t guarantee a return trip next year. The roster will change, other teams will get better or worse and the Blues will have to work just as hard to make another extended playoff trip.

That being said, the Blues were easily as good as any of those four remaining teams. They just came up short when it mattered the most.

Give the San Jose Sharks plenty of credit here, too. With the exception of Game 4 in San Jose they bottled up the Blues’ top scorers, including Vladimir Tarasenko, who finally scored his first two goals of the series in the final stages of Game 6 when things were basically out of reach.

The Sharks’ top line of Joe Pavelksi, Joe Thornton and Tomas Hertl was dominant. The Sharks outplayed the Blues, forced the game on them with heavy forechecking and aggressive defense that left the Blues with little in the way of Grade A scoring chances.

And one area where it seemed the Blues had the advantage — goaltending — proved to not be the case with Martin Jones leading the Sharks into the finals while Brian Elliott and Jake Allen couldn’t get it done.

Elliott surrendered 10 goals on 63 shots in his final three appearances. In his two games, Allen allowed seven goals on 59 shots. There also were glaring defensive mistakes and lack of attention to detail that kept cropping up against San Jose.

Plenty of questions remain before training camp opens next September.

Coach Ken Hitchcock was on a one-year contract and captain David Backes, last seen in an emotional heartfelt media session Wednesday following the Game 6 defeat, can become an unrestricted free agent July 1.

Was Wednesday the last game for Backes in a Blues uniform? Will Hitchcock return? I think this was one of his best coaching jobs given all the injuries and adversity this team was forced to contend with.

Veteran forwards Troy Brouwer, Kyle Brodziak and Scottie Upshall are also unrestricted free agents.

The contract of Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk is up next year, leading to speculation he could potentially wind up in a trade somewhere down the road.

My final analysis is the franchise took a step forward this year, jettisoning some of the ghosts of first-round playoff exits past.

But an inability to close out the Blackhawks and Stars earlier than seven games may have led to fatigue that cost them a bit during the third round against a Sharks team that had played two fewer games heading into the series.

The Sharks’ best players were better than the Blues’ best players and that’s what helped decide the series. From the moment the Blues lost a 3-2 lead with 1:27 remaining in the second period, the Sharks turned up the volume and never looked back.

Blues fans will have a little more trouble closing the book on this season, but a solid core of talent remains to at least insure the potential for better days ahead.

(Norm Sanders has covered the Blues for the News-Democrat since 1995).

Norm Sanders: 618-239-2454, @NormSanders

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