The Blues' stunning crash in the Western Conference semifinals is alarming. A rising team that rolled up 109 regular-season points before beating San Jose in the first round is being embarrassed by the Los Angeles Kings.
Trailing the dominant Kings 3-0, the Blues will try to avoid elimination Sunday afternoon at Staples Center.
Do you believe in miracles?
We've seen an assortment of understandable reactions from Blues fans. I don't blame anyone for being openly angry or quietly depressed. The Kings are destroying the excitement and the promise of the Blues' season, and it's difficult to watch.
Unfortunately, this is nothing new for Blues fans. That familiar, sinking feeling is settling in. Optimism has been slapped away by another hard shot of reality.
If indeed this is the end, we'll spend a few weeks trying to process emotions. Would the 2011-2012 season be tarnished by an abrupt playoff ejection? If the Blues fall weakly and meekly to the Kings, does their season go down as a failure?
Everyone who cares about this team is forming an opinion, and there is no right or wrong one. You can boil over. You can remain upbeat.
As a fan who has enjoyed watching this team all season, I'm staying on the bandwagon. I'll be frowning and maybe muttering a few curse words, but I won't jump.
As a sports columnist, I'm trying to maintain a reasonable perspective. I respect the progress that has been made. But I also want to see what new ownership will do to help this team go higher in the coming season.
For now, it would be ridiculous to write off this season as a worthless, meaningless tease.
"Absolutely not," said Jeremy Roenick, the NBC Sports hockey analyst who scored 513 goals in his NHL career. "The Blues have really made tremendous strides. The quality of the team, the reputation of the team, all of it. They're going to be very respected in the league. They've worked hard, and they have quality players. They really did something special this year. And if they go out in four to LA, they really don't have anything to hang their heads about."
The last three games, all losses, were awful. But take a deep breath and recognize that the Blues have had an outstanding campaign overall.
The Blues put together only the fourth 100-point season in their 44 seasons of NHL competition. Their regular-season winning percentage (.665) was the third-best in franchise history. The 109 points placed the Blues tied for No. 2 among the NHL's 30 teams.
Until now, no Blues team had won as many as 41 games at home or led the NHL in shutouts. The Blues' average of goals allowed per game (1.89) was the lowest by an NHL team since the league expanded from the original six in 1967-68.
The Blues won the NHL's toughest division, the Central, for the first time since 1999-2000. A year ago, if someone guaranteed you that the Blues would beat out Detroit, Chicago and Nashville for the Central crown, I assume you would have been thrilled. The Blues' postseason took a terrible, wrong turn against LA, but that doesn't erase their win over San Jose, the first triumph in a postseason series since 2002.
Ken Hitchcock is a finalist for the coach of the year award. Doug Armstrong is a finalist for GM of the year. David Backes is a finalist for the Selke Trophy, which goes to the league's best defensive forward.
The Blues went 49-22-11 this season with a roster that includes 11 players ages 25 or younger. And that doesn't include rookie Jaden Schwartz, who scored two goals in a seven-game trial late in the season. The Blues might have a heralded prospect, forward Vladimir Tarasenko, in the mix next season.
The Blues' list of positives is more impressive when put into the proper context. Over the previous six seasons combined, the Blues' were 27th in the NHL in winning percentage, and 28th in wins. They were only one of three NHL teams that didn't win a single postseason game in the six-season period.
We've seen the franchise rise from the bottom of the league. The Blues haven't reached the top, but they zoomed to 109 points after failing to qualify for the playoffs in five of the past six seasons.
That's a big step.
Winning the Stanley Cup is the most difficult mission in North American professional team sports. It doesn't happen in the flash of one season, especially for a maturing group that wasn't good enough make the playoffs in recent years.
The LA Kings offer an example. It's easy to forget that this is their third consecutive trip to the postseason; the Kings' nucleus has been building for this 2012 run. And the Kings, unlike the Blues, had the financial jack to add an expensive and impact player, forward Jeff Carter, this season at the trade deadline. Last summer, the Kings traded for center Mike Richards, assuming his enormous contract.
Armstrong doesn't have that kind of money to spend to improve the Blues. Because of the Blues' shaky financial status, Armstrong was prohibited from adding payroll at the deadline. I'm not saying that money would have gotten the Blues past Los Angeles and deeper into the postseason; we'll never know. But I'd like to see Armstrong have more resources to work with.
It's imperative for the Blues to stabilize their ownership. That said, I question prospective owner Tom Stillman's financial muscle. I'd be pleasantly surprised by a significant increase in team payroll.
All we can do now is wait and see. Stillman's opportunity to make a difference will come later.
If the Blues fail to shock the hockey world by rebelling against the Kings, I'll be disappointed by the way their ride ended. But I'm not disgusted. This has been an entertaining season.
Even with payroll restrictions, the Blues are in good position for a run at that elusive Stanley Cup over the next few seasons. I just hope Stillman can give his hockey people a better chance to reach for it.
After years of slowly developing a young nucleus of talent, the Blues have come a long way this season.
This isn't the end.
It's the beginning.