Sunday, April 26, 2015

Familiar story for Blues, who fall to Wild 4-1 to end season

Questions will abound in uncertain off-season after another early playoff ouster

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- A familiar script played out for the Blues here Sunday at Xcel Energy Center.

And it was a script from an ending to a bad novel that never seems to go away for this franchise.

Another promising regular season in which the Blues build up so many hopes and dreams got washed away with the disappointment of yet another underachieving Stanley Cup Playoff run.

Or better termed, lack of a playoff run.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues players (left to right) Ryan Reaves, Brian Elliott, Jori Lehtera, Carl
Gunnarsson and Jake Allen watch as the season ends on Sunday.

The Blues' season came to an end in a 4-1 loss against the Minnesota Wild in Game 6 of the Western Conference First Round series.

The Wild, which advances to the Western Conference Second Round against the Chicago Blackhawks, won the best-of-7 series 4-2.

It marks the third straight season the Blues bowed out in the first round, on the road and only scoring one goal in an elimination game. And in the coach Ken Hitchcock era, the Blues are 10-17 in the postseason the past four seasons and have scored one goal in each game the Blues faced elimination.

It was another painful reminder of how this constructed roster doesn't seem to be able to rise to the occasion when the temperature rises during the time of season when it matters most: the playoffs.

The Blues finished the series with 14 goals, the same amount they scored last season against the Chicago Blackhawks, and 10 of those came in their two victories; which means four goals came in the four losses.

It was an area Blues management felt like they fixed last off-season but the same results came to light. The Blues scored 14 goals  but one was an empty-netter and got little to no production from their "core" group outside of Vladimir Tarasenko, who scored six goals in the series.

In the end, it will go down as another "squandered opportunity" as general manager Doug Armstrong put it after last season's postseason loss.

"To tell you the truth, I haven't fully digested everything," said captain David Backes, who finished with one goal and one assist (both in Game 4). "But my off the cuff remarks is we outshot them in both games, five and six. Quality of chances, maybe we just need to have a little more traffic and find some spots through them. He made good saves, they played a good game. It's the Western Conference, the Central Division. There's a lot of good teams but we won the division playing a certain way and we had success playing a certain way. We got away from that in critical times of playoffs and now we've got to have these -- no offense -- terrible interviews right now that I'm sick of doing quite frankly.

"It sucks. There's no other summary of it than it sucks. We put a lot into the regular season to get into the playoffs and then we seem to rather than go up a notch to beat a team, we're feeling them out or whatever and we're on our heels too much and they take it to us. You give Zach Parise too much room, he makes you pay. They're playing hard on our guys. We've got to return that and up the ante even more. Not enough. It's myself, it's everybody in this room. Together as a group, we didn't bring enough. Now we've got to answer way too many questions."

So for a third straight year, the Blues fail to win and bring a Game 7 to home ice, and they lost their ninth straight game in franchise history when facing elimination. The last win came in Game 6 against San Jose on April 23, 2000, a series in which they lost in seven games.

"It's the worst (feeling)," forward Steve Ott said. "You put in a lot of months, a lot of effort. You never know when you get a special group like we had in here. You've got to translate regular season to playoffs. It's a completely different beast. I know this series was a telling tale of what can go wrong at times and what does go wrong."

And in a game in which the Blues -- time and time again they seemed to have said all the right things after a loss in this series -- knew what needed to be done, failed to execute in the most critical areas.

Instead of taking the initiative, the Blues fell back into more bad habits: on their heels, mis-managing the puck and leaky goals allowed by Jake Allen, which was the last thing they needed.

Zach Parise scored twice, including the opening shorthanded goal to put Minnesota up 1-0.

Parise beat Allen with a shorthanded goal on a terrible angle after Kevin Shattenkirk lost handle of the puck following Matt Cooke's attempted poke-check at the blue line that created a 1-on-3 opportunity -- yes, 1-on-3. 

Shattenkirk did enough to push Parise wide of the goal, but the Wild left wing beat Allen from near the goal line 7:14 into the period.

The Blues escaped the period being outshot 10-4 despite having two power plays.

The Blues fell behind 2-0 after Justin Fontaine beat Allen with a soft, five-hole goal on what looked like a harmless play 11:19 into the second period. The Blues made the switch in goal, lifting Allen in favor of Brian Elliott after Allen allowed t1o goals on 13 shots.

"Two terrible goals again," Allen said. "I just let the boys down.

"I was more focused today than I ever was all year. Just two bad goals that can’t go in at this time of year."

The Blues finally found life with four seconds left in the second when T.J. Oshie scored his first of the series off a faceoff win, a shot from Shattenkirk that was deflected through Backes' legs to Oshie, who beat Devan Dubnyk from a sharp angle short side to make it 2-1.

Instead of building off that momentum, the Blues allowed the back-breaker to Parise off a rebound in front of Elliott 1:01 into the third.

Niederreiter added an empty-netter with 1:52 to play that sealed the Blues' fate that will headline a very uncertain future.

"Our best games were the last three," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "Probably if you look at one (defining moment) was, we probably got into our 'A' game a little bit late, I suppose. We didn't play very well in Game 1 and 3 and we played awful well after that. 

"We win as a team, we lose as a team. We played hard the last three games. So ... we lost. But we lose as one, we win as one. We've done that all the time. I don't want to get into resiliency and all that stuff. Resiliency is an overused word. The biggest thing for us is the timely part of scoring, and the timely part of saves. That's playoff hockey."

The Blues got neither in the past two games. 

Allen, who was making his postseason debut, played very well to brilliant in the first four games of this series, but in the past two games, allowed six goals on 32 shots the past two games.

He was -- to noone's surprise afterwards -- hard on himself and stood tall in light of what happened on the ice.

"Right now it’s going to sit with me in a terrible way for a while," said Allen, who finished with a 2.20 goals against average and .904 save percentage. "It's going to be a while before I can start to let go and focus on next year.

"It was my job to keep the team in it (Sunday). I let in a soft one and another bad goal. ... It’s (a) terrible (feeling) right now. To get a chance to win the Stanley Cup, it doesn’t happen too often in your career. Especially with a team like this. This isn’t acceptable for any of us, I don’t think. This isn’t going to sit well for a while and it’s going to be tough to watch the rest of the playoffs knowing we’re not in it."

Hitchcock stood up for his 24-year-old rookie goalie.

"He's a young guy," Hitchcock said of Allen. "He's going to gain a lot of knowledge from this. I don't think it's time to pile on the goalie or anything like that. He's a young guy learning a lot. He's going to figure it out. He'll be a good goalie."

But the underlying problem once again was the lack of goal scoring. Aside from Tarasenko, the Blues got five goals (one each) from Alexander Steen, Backes, Oshie, Paul Stastny and Jaden Schwartz, guys who led the team in all scoring categories this season or were expected to lead.

Dubnyk, who allowed six goals on 17 shots in a Game 4 loss, came back and stopped 66 of 68 in Games 5 and 6.

"It was either feast or famine," Hitchcock said. "They made us work for our chances. We had a lot of chances in Game 5, but they made us work for them. We didn't score. So you can look at all the chances when the game's on the line. It's us and the goalie three times and the goalie and us and the goalie three times in period three  when it's on the line and we didn't finish it. You can dissect that all you want. The biggest thing for me is it's hard to win when you're chasing games all the time. We were chasing too many games here at the end of the third period."

"I don't know. I guess if you watched the game and you don't just look at the stat sheet, the core group has been playing some pretty good games since playoffs and doing a lot of things that Hitch has been asking us to do," Oshie said. "For whatever reason, we haven't gotten the goals or we haven't gotten everyone on the same page."

And that begs the question of why can't the Blues raise the barometer when the temperature rises?

"If I had answers to these questions, I'd have fixed it after Game 1 and we would have won 4-1 and be going on to play Chicago," Backes said. "The fact of the matter is it's our 20 in war against their 20 and they got the better of us. 

"It sucks. If I had answers, I would have solved this a long time ago and we'd be going on to the second round smiling and telling you how we won the series. The fact of the matter is we didn't do enough from the first guy down to the last guy and now we go to the summer again way to early."

But it's almost certain that heads will roll at some point, and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who for the second straight postseason led the Blues in points with eight (he had five last season against Chicago), said to expect them.

"I would assume so," he said. "Army's not a guy who's going to sit back and let this happen year after year. That's the hardest thing for us right now is having to worry about that."

As for Hitchcock, who's in the final year of his contract, Shattenkirk said bring him back.

"Absolutely," he said. "Hitch has been the reason why we've been here for four years. He's hard on us, but he does it because he knows the right way and how to get to this position. You can never take that away from the way he coaches. He coaches fundamentals. It's something we needed and we were able to get here because of him."

But the Blues must take the blame for another postseason failure.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Wild's Zach Parise (11) scores a third-period goal against the Blues
and Brian Elliott (top) and Jori Lehtera (12) in a 4-1 Minnesota win.

"Every time it's on us," Shattenkirk said. "It's on the players first. It was a tough series to swallow. It's hard to fully think about it now. It's hard. You're almost in shock that this just happened. It's really hard to talk and evaluate it, but we have to look in the mirror first always.

"... We had a great team this year; there's no doubt about it. Did we fall short, absolutely. We're not thrilled with that. I know people are frustrated about that, but we care. We really care a lot about that. For the effort that we put in all regular season for it to end up this way, it sucks. It really does.

"It's really hard to put into words right now," Oshie said. "It's so early and so fresh. Everyone's just a little disappointed that we weren't able to give a little more to get this to St. Louis for Game 7."

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