Sunday, April 10, 2011

Promising start, finish not enough to overcome major obstacles for Blues

Team's franchise-best start, solid finish
good, not enough to garner playoff berth

ST. LOUIS -- It began as the best start in franchise history. It ended with the same enthusiasm and strong play for the Blues.

However, the reason the Blues sit idly from postseason competition once again this year is everything that happened -- or didn't happen -- between start and finish.

"It's set in. We're bummed out," said winger Alex Steen, who potted his 20th goal of the season and 100th of his career in Saturday's 2-0 season finale win over Nashville. "There's no question the guys are disappointed with not being in the playoffs, considering the expectations we had on ourselves.

"I think coming into the year and the start we had, we were looking forward to some playoff games. It's such a fun time come spring time when the weather starts warming up and the playoffs are around the corner and you're in that hunt. This year, we had a tough few games at times, but I thought the guys did a great job. We played hard. That'll translate into next season."

Coming into the season, the Blues had high hopes. This was the season the Blues were supposed to bust through and serve notice to the rest of the Western Conference that they were back, back to their pre-lockout seasons of making the playoffs a regular occurrence.

It all began with so much promise after the Blues started off 9-1-2, doing what no other team in Blues history could do through 12 games of the season.

But towards the end of October, bodies began to fall -- as in injured. It started with Roman Polak, then Carlo Colaiacovo, Barret Jackman, David Perron, T.J. Oshie, Andy McDonald ... the list went on and on.

As Blues bodies began to drop, so did their win total, and in the end, it led to a 38-33-11 season, good for 87 points. The Blues join the 2000-01 Phoenix Coyotes as the only teams in NHL history to not quality for the playoffs after earning at least 20 points through the first 12 team games.

"It set in about 10 games ago when you figured it would take something miraculous for us to do it," said forward David Backes, who became the first player in franchise history to collect 30 goals, 30 assists and a plus-30 rating. "Unfortunately, those feelings have led to us really doing some good things down the stretch run but it's all for naught because our season is over now."

The Blues ended their season on a 6-1-2 run, including 3-0-1 in their last four. They finished 10 points out of a playoff spot in 11th place in the Western Conference after failing to make it by five points a season ago with 90 points.

"The way we finished and the way guys have battled here and bought into how we're going to need to play, how they've supported each other, stuck up for each other ... this is a great foundation," said Blues coach Davis Payne, who completed his first full season behind the bench. "You can see these young guys that have taken a step and really feel that they can drive this thing forward."

The Blues found out that they have some pretty talented young players. Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, the team's top pick (fourth overall) in 2007, established himself quite nicely in his first full season. So much, that the Blues felt like they could afford to deal away Erik Johnson, the top overall pick in 2006.

How about the production from Nikita Nikitin and Ian Cole, two defensemen who battled in preseason who were pressed into service after the injuries occurred. There's Kevin Shattenkirk, acquired as part of the trade with the Avalanche that sent Johnson and Jay McClement the other way. He led all rookie defensemen in assists and points this season.

Chris Stewart, also part of the Feb. 19 trade with the Avs, tallied 15 goals and 23 points in 26 games and will be teamed up with Backes to give the Blues a formidable power forward combination for years to come.

And how about the production of Patrik Berglund and Matt D'Agostini, after Berglund suffered through the proverbial sophomore slump and D'Agostini got little to no time in limited duty at the end of last season after being acquired from Montreal.

Backes, Stewart, McDonald, Steen, Berglund and D'Agostini all totaled 20 goals or more, giving the Blues six 20-goal scorers in one season for the first time since the 2002-03 season.

"It's too bad because we are such a young team and have so much talent and a good team," said Berglund, who set career highs in goals (22), assists (30) and points (52). "Obviously we wanted to be a part of the playoffs but we have to reload the batteries and I hope everybody will stay serious during the summer and do the things we have to do to get better. We have to take another step. I know we had injuries and all that, but that's not an excuse. We have to move forward and develop and get even better."

Backes finished second in the league at plus-32, tied with Vancouver's Kevin Bieksa and Anaheim's Toni Lydman, only trailing Boston's Zdeno Chara's league-leading plus-33. But Backes was tops among all NHL forwards.

"It's a great feeling. You can now look back on it in retrospect," Backes said. "It's quite an accomplishment, but I've said many times I'd give all those 30-30-30 (stats) back for one round in the playoffs just to give us a chance to see what we can do."

And then there's Jaroslav Halak, brought in to be the team's No. 1 goalie now and into the future, who certainly had his ups and downs in a season that saw the Slovakian native set a career-high for wins (27) and finish with a 2.48 goals-against average, a .910 save percentage and a career-high seven shutouts (including three against the Predators).

"Everybody has ups and downs," said Halak, who signed a four-year, $15-million deal last summer after being acquired from Montreal. "It was a learning year for me to be a No. 1 from the start. I don't think it was a bad year. It wasn't the best, but all in all, it was OK. Too bad we missed the playoffs. ... I'm just happy we at least finished strong."

The Blues simply couldn't overcome those injuries.

Jackman (knee, hand) missed a total of 22 games, McDonald (concussion) was out 24 games, Vladimir Sobotka (shoulder, foot) missed 17 games, Steen (ankle) was out 10 games late in the season but came back, Colaiacovo (concussion, eye) also had two stints on injured reserve and missed 17 games, Polak (wrist) started it off with 24 games on IR, Nikitin (wrist) started the season on IR and missed 10 games, Oshie (ankle, personal) missed another 33 games with an injury and two games for conduct detrimental to the team and then there's Perron, who missed the last 72 games after a punishing hit by San Jose's Joe Thornton on Nov. 4. Halak (hand) also missed 14 games. There were others, but the Blues will have 311 man-games lost to injury this season.

"Last year was our start, especially home games. We corrected that, came in and got a great start this year flying in," Steen said. "We're going to have to do that again next year.

"We had a lot of injury trouble in November -- even prior to November and in October. December was a good month for us and then January (2-8-2) and February (6-5-2), we started getting fatigued and lost the consistency in our game. Then in March and April, we came back again and played strong. I thought the guys that came up from Peoria did a heck of a job, worked extremely hard."

Opportunities were still there, but they were opportunities lost.

Said Payne, "When I think about the opportunities missed, I probably don't go to sleep that quick, but when I think about the opportunity ahead, it's going to seem like a far too long of a summer based on where we feel we can get going, too, from here."

The Blues will clean out their lockers Monday morning at Scottrade Center and meet with members of the media for a final time before scattering for the summer.

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