Monday, April 28, 2014

Another early playoff exit has Blues facing more uncertainty

Team eliminated in first round of playoffs for second consecutive 
season heads into off-season with more questions than answers

ST. LOUIS -- Another early playoff exit was not what the Blues expected, even after a season-ending six-game losing streak.

But the Blues are faced with more questions than answers after another disappointing --  and bitter -- first round playoff exit.

For the second straight season, the Blues jumped out of the gates in the Western Conference playoffs winning the first two games before dropping the final four.

In 2013, it was the Los Angeles Kings. And after a 5-1 defeat Sunday at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks, the Blues enter another off-season with more questions than answers.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues players (from left to right) Chris Porter, Maxim Lapierre and Vladimir
Tarasenko as well as coach Ken Hitchcock face another off-season of
uncertainty after a second straight first-round playoff exit. 

A regular season that saw a record-setting 52 victories (of course nine of them via shootout) and they were on pace for a record-setting number of points before a six-game losing streak to end the regular season that began with a sudden rash of injuries.

And what seemed like an insurmountable occasion, a first round matchup against the Blackhawks, suddenly became a reality when the Blues lost the division lead to the Colorado Avalanche.

But all seemingly was forgotten when the Blues won Games 1 and 2 in triple overtime and overtime, respectively. This time, they would learn from last year's experience of losing a 2-0 series lead. And heading into these playoffs, a team that held a 2-0 series lead would go on to win 86.4 percent of the time.

But painfully for the Blues, it was deja vu all over again.

"It's frustrating," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "I think at times Chicago beat us and I think at times, we beat ourselves. Some mistakes that we made that cost us. They played hard. They battled and the series could have gone either way, but it's a tough pill to swallow right now."

Another case of so close, yet so far away.

"Can't (process it) right now," said captain David Backes, who played four of the six games in the series with a broken left toe sustained from that blocked shot April 8 from teammate Alexander Steen. "Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. That's not more true than now. Close didn't get it done. Same scenario as last year where we won two close games to start and then even Games 3 and 4 in here were close, really one-goal games, one empty-netter and one OT game. Back to our building for an OT game and then a 1-1 game going into the third here, but you knew the margins were going to be thin that we had to play our best hockey to win four games here and we played pretty well throughout, but the result is not what we desired and we have to be better and that starts with myself."

The Blues, who finished with 111 points this season, dropped 10 of their final 12 games going back to the regular season. And what had been a great regular season yet again, seems like it was all lost with another early playoff exit.

"It doesn't get any easier. Every year, you don't make the playoffs or lose in the first round or you lose, period, it's just a wasted opportunity," defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said. "We had, up until the last week or two of the regular season, we had a fantastic year. We had it turned around in the first couple of games, and then had a couple close ones here, a close one back home and then for two periods played pretty well (Sunday).

"They stuck with it and it's the same lesson we learned last year. ... It doesn't matter who you are, when you lose it's (lousy). We knew the series wasn't going to be easy, they're a good team and had their successes recently. It just goes down the tube and it's all for nothing now."

Besides Backes, Patrik Berglund played with a separated shoulder, Brenden Morrow was lost for the series with a broken foot, Vladimir Sobotka played with various injuries, Vladimir Tarasenko, who led the Blues with four playoff goals, came back two weeks sooner than expected with his hand injury sustained in mid-March, to name a few. But the Blues refuse to use it as an excuse.

"It's the playoffs. You never want to be out and watching your guys battle and watching those two games, I couldn't be more prouder of throwing it on the line and playing their butts off," Backes said. "From that hit (in Game 2), I was out and (Brent) Seabrook's out too and he's a pretty good player for them. This series didn't really ... I don't think it had a big momentum swing. It was still real close games, but the result is the result. We can talk about one play here, one play there. When it was on our stick, we need to get the job done and we didn't get the job done and we're going home early.

"It's an 82-game season, you're going to have injuries. We were really healthy most of the year. A little banged up at the end, but if you're in that (Chicago) locker room, I'm sure they got guys banged up, too, and it's us as a group with whatever ailments we're dealing with. ... They got the job done, we didn't. We're going home."

Ryan Miller, who finished with a 2.70 goals-against average and .897 save percentage in the playoffs, was brought in to be the last piece to the puzzle in an extended, and perhaps Stanley Cup run, and although sole blame is hardly the way to go when it comes to Miller with the Blues' inability to score, but he was hardly a consistent difference maker. Miller had his moments, particularly in Game 1 during the overtime periods but he was also prone to the soft goal as well.

"We just didn’t get on to playing the right way overall," Miller said of the recent weeks' play. "Maybe it caught up to us a little bit.

"I'll have to sit down and think about (Miller's play). I don't know, not good enough I guess."

Miller, a pending unrestricted free agent, was asked about his immediate plans.

"I don’t know," Miller said. "We'll just have to take them as they come right now. I guess I'm free to go to my sister-in-law's wedding, so that's about it."

Count Backes as one of those who defended Miller's play.

"He works his butt off," Backes said. "He's the consummate professional. A guy that you love having on your team. Some of the plays, tips in front and things like that, I don't think it matters who's in net. They made some good plays. They were blocking our shots, were trying similar plays or finding ways to get in lanes or denying opportunities ... he did more than his share and we need to do more in front of him. 

"We're going to win as a team, lose as a team. We all need to look in the mirror and assess how we did and what we didn't do. No offense to you guys, but these interviews are getting a little sickening to have in April and not in June."

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock was non-committal when asked about Miller's future with the team.

"I don't get into the long-term stuff," he said. "That's Doug (Armstrong's) department. 

"He played good for us. I'm sure there are some goals that he'd like to have back, just like any goalie would. But this is we win as a team, we lose as a team. My God, we gave up a breakaway for the third goal and we got seamed on the second goal (Sunday). That's not the goalies fault. Those are big errors. For this time to move the game along those are big errors we just can't make. We had to play close to perfection. We missed so many scoring chances, just us and the goalie. You kind of had the feeling in the back of your head that I hope this doesn't come back and haunt us, all these power plays that we've earned, and then not score on. We didn't get a lead and it allowed them to keep playing."

It's early, but Miller expressed his desire to come back.

"Yeah. We're through with the hockey part now, I'll have to see where were at, see how they feel about me," Miller said. "I definitely like St. Louis, I like the guys, I like the team. We'll see what they feel about the playoffs."

Now that the Blues have more questions to answer, someone must be held accountable.

"That's an Army question," Hitchcock said. "I'm more concerned with what we poured into this series. We poured a lot into it. I mean this was six games and it felt like nine games for both teams. I'm sure Joel (Quenneville) feels the same way. It was a long, hard-fought series and both teams poured a lot into it. The damn bust here at the end (of Game 6), but I don't know, that's stuff for Doug. I'm not going to get into it."

Backes would.

"I don't know how you're going to assess that accountability, but we needed to be a little bit better than they were and we didn't get the job done," he said. "I'll take more than my share of the blame. I didn't produce. I'm counted on to produce. I'll shoulder that and think about it a lot this summer and hopefully drive the engine going into next year."

Whoever else will be part of the engine, that will be up to Armstrong and Co. to answer.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Goalie Ryan Miller, an unrestricted free agent in July, expressed his desire
to come back to St. Louis. The question is will he be back.

"That threshold seems to be ... it's not real thin in the Central (Division)," Backes said. "You're playing the defending Stanley Cup champions, you've got to bring your game every night, every shift, every period. 

"I sound like a broken record here, but we were there. We had four overtime games, won 50 percent of them and the other two games were pretty damn close going down the stretch. Finding ways to win those close games, they did it, we didn't."

"We showed a lot of strong character for what we had," said forward Steve Ott, who was part of the trade with Miller from the Buffalo Sabres. "We had a lot of stuff going on in the last few weeks or so with this team. For the guys to put their gear on every single night to battle what we’ve been battling through, we showed a lot of resiliency. Four of the six games into overtime and it could have easily went the other way against a strong hockey club.

"The core players in this dressing room, the young guys that are now leaders and the leaders that are now veteran guys ... it's a numb feeling. It's never fun when you expect to win a Cup. Let's be honest, that's what we expected out of us and (we) didn't get the job done."

1 comment:

  1. Need more finishers up front, with or without Miller.