LOS ANGELES • Point to the tripping penalty by Chris Stewart or the turnover by Roman Polak, leading to a quick Los Angeles goal. There was evidence early in Sunday's Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals that the Blues would continue fighting themselves while attempting to bring the series back to St. Louis.
A 3-1 loss to LA may have been the Blues' best performance against the Kings, but with five offensive-zone penalties, worrisome defense and goaltending and a lack of offense all around, it wasn't difficult to understand how the club was swept despite marked improvement in Game 4.
In knocking off the top two seeds in the West, No. 1 Vancouver and the No. 2 Blues, LA earned the right to advance to the Western Conference finals and garnered praise from Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, who said: "They're the best team we've played against." But afterward, the Blues couldn't help but realize that the team that put up 109 points in the regular season failed to show up against the Kings.
"Before the series, we were taking about being a mirror image of each other and how similar our styles were," Blues defenseman Barret Jackman said. "They played the game that we wanted to and we just didn't elevate our level to what they were doing."
Self-inflicted wounds put the Blues in tough spots throughout the series, and that continued in Game 4. Just 2 minutes, 6 seconds into the game, Stewart tripped LA's Matt Greene, putting the team short-handed before the popcorn was ready at the concession stand. The Kings were only one for 21 on the power play in the series and didn't capitalize on Stewart's penalty, but as in the first three games, they were able to seize the momentum.
Thirty seconds after Stewart exited the penalty box, Polak coughed up a puck in front of the net and LA's Jordan Nolan put it behind goalie Brian Elliott for a 1-0 lead only 4:36 into the game.
"It hit my stick and it just exploded and went through the middle," Polak said. "I should have it. It was a bad play by me."
The Blues tied the score 1-1 on a goal by Kevin Shattenkirk with 8:26 left in the first period. Shattenkirk ripped a slap shot past LA goalie Jonathan Quick for the club's first goal by a defenseman in the playoffs.
But a rare sight this postseason was quickly followed by a familiar scene, as the Blues then surrendered a goal 6:53 later. The Blues had six goals against the Kings in the series, and including Sunday's goal by Shattenkirk, the Kings responded to five of them within eight minutes.
LA's go-ahead goal with 1:43 left in the first period came from Dustin Brown, who also had the empty-netter at the end of the game, giving him two goals Sunday.
On Brown's first, the Blues' David Perron waved his stick at him while backchecking on the play, and with open ice, Brown put a shot through the legs of Alex Pietrangelo and over the shoulder of Elliott for a 2-1 lead.
"(Brown) was a wildcat coming into (the series)," Hitchcock said. "He's learned how to be a positive influence when the temperature is up."
The Blues did not play well when the temperature rose. Despite outshooting the Kings 13-2 in the second period and 20-9 in the final 40 minutes, they hurt themselves with penalties.
In the second period, the Blues went on the power play, but 10 seconds later, David Backes nullified the opportunity with an elbowing penalty. In the third, with the referee's hand raised for a delayed penalty against LA, the Blues' Matt D'Agostini boarded Alec Martinez to wipe out another man-advantage. Scott Nichol had two high-sticking penalties Sunday, one a four-minute double-minor that cost the Blues, still trailing 2-1, valuable time to kill.
The Blues averaged 23.6 penalty minutes per game in the playoffs, second-most behind Pittsburgh (24.8). All five minors Sunday came in the offensive zone.
"The biggest thing looking back on this series is the personal shift-by-shift (lack of) discipline when it gets really ramped up," Hitchcock said. "If you look at the games 1, 2 and 4, we had a lot of penalties that took us off the power play or allowed them to keep momentum."
The Blues did have a power play midway through the third period Sunday and nearly had their first man-advantage goal of the season against the Kings. Defenseman Kris Russell had a point-blank shot, but Quick made the save and the Kings denied Pietrangelo and Perron rebound chances.
"I'd like to have that one back," Russell said. "Those are ones, you have an opportunity to tie it, you've got to get it in the net."
The Blues were 0 for three on the power play Sunday, 0 for 17 in the series and 0 for 31 against the Kings including the regular season. The club had just seven goals in seven games against Quick this season.
"Even as well as we played (Sunday), you still have to outwork the goalie," Hitchcock said. "We have not found a way to outwork him. He made maybe five, six unbelievable saves off the second shot. But that's who he is. He never quits on a puck and we weren't able to put it through him."
And because of their many shortcomings in the series, the Blues returned to St. Louis, but not to play another game.
"We have a lot of time to think about it," Stewart said. "We're a young team and we learned from a team like LA, which showed us what it takes to get onto the Western Conference finals. We're back next year and the biggest thing is to remember the feeling."