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The NHL playoff mirror doesn't lie; Blues simply aren't good enough

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The entire St. Louis community did not travel to and from Los Angeles, but the hockey-loving part of it has serious jet lag right now.

How could something so promising, so exciting disintegrate so rapidly? It took The Arena longer to implode than it took this Blues team to do so.

On Friday, May 3, the Blues were on a plane headed to LA, leading the reigning Stanley Cup champion Kings 2-0 in a first-round playoff series. A week later, they were on a plane home from LA. Done.

On May 3 they needed to win just two out of the next five games to capture the series and move down the Stanley Cup road. They couldn’t win one of the next four, losing each by the agonizing margin of one goal.

As they disembarked a plane at 5:30 a.m. Saturday the Blues had to wonder what hit them, besides the Kings, who hit them 241 times.

They were in bed by 6 o’clock, literally and figuratively.

Coroner’s report

People will spend ample time discussing the details of what happened. But you also could spend almost no time at all. A coroner would pinpoint the cause of death in two areas.

First, the Blues didn’t score enough. They scored one goal or less in regulation three times in the series and got shut out once. This was the 1968 Stanley Cups finals all over again, when the Blues couldn’t score against the Canadiens and lost four straight.

They had seven goals in four games in ’68, or 1.75 per game. They had 10 goals in six games against Kings, or 1.6 per game.

The difference is that the 1967-68 Blues, for all practical purposes, didn’t try to score against Montreal. Knowing his team was overmatched, coach Scotty Bowman played prevent defense and hoped for divine intervention. He got it, but only 1.75 times per game.

Ken Hitchcock’s team didn’t resist so passively. It had scoring chances, lots of them, more than their conquerors. If chances were dances, the Blues virtually cut a rug. But they couldn’t finish. Their go-to guys got up and left.

Chris Porter had one more goal in the series than Chris Stewart and David Perron.

Barret Jackman had one more than Andy McDonald and Vladimir Sobotka, etc. So when you put the blame on the goaltending, as we always do, qualify it.

That said, Brian Elliott was not Glenn Hall. He allowed three goals over the first three games of the series, nine over the last three. He played well, but he yielded at the worst times — in the first minutes of periods, in the final seconds of periods, in overtime.

There were perfectly good reasons, beyond his control, incidents and accidents, tips and screens. Every goal came with an exonerating explanation, but they came just the same.

Goaltending is a brutally bottom-line business. Either you’re the difference in winning, or you’re not. LA’s Jonathan Quick was the difference-maker. Elliott wasn’t.

Overall, this Blues season was special for its lack of specialty. These Blues were picked by some to win the Cup, remember? The Blues supposedly learned from being swept from the last year’s tournament by these same Kings. And they did learn. They competed like mad men this time. They outplayed the Kings in all but one of the games, and should have won that one, too. That’s not self-indulging smoke or denial, that’s the truth.

And this is the other truth — they weren’t good enough.

The Blues thought they had a championship contender, they don’t. Hitchcock was looking for the buy-in all season. He got it, and it wasn’t good enough.

The Blues’ Cup contention expired in six games, four consecutive losses, one round earlier than last season.

It’s awfully hard to win 1-0 and 2-1, and do it on a regular basis. It’s admirable, it’s courageous, it’s even kind of macho. But it’s living on the edge and, ultimately, it died on the edge.

Backes reflects

“You only get so many years to win the league, only get so many times to the playoffs,” said Blues captain David Backes, who has seven years in the league and never made it past the conference semifinals.

“This team was hot going into the playoffs. We added big pieces at the deadline … we were expecting better and then this. But, uh … I don’t know what the next step is.”

Some of the steps will be natural, take place by photosynthesis. McDonald’s four-year deal is up and he can become a free agent.

He was not the same player this season, especially after an injury to his knee. His time as a Blue is underwritten my multiple injuries and concussion concerns. He’ll be 36 in August, an unrestricted free agent after he had no points in the playoff series. The needle might be approaching “E.”

Stewart’s one-year contact expires. He led the Blues in scoring this season, goals and points. He also confuses the bejeebers out of you. Eight of Stewart’s 18 goals and 15 of his 36 points came in a nine-game stretch. In the LA series, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound “Stewball” was limited to one assist and nine hits, 23 fewer than the smallest Blue on the ice, Vladimir Sobotka. It seems odd to suggest the Blues won’t attempt to re-sign their top scorer. But they receive draft compensation if the restricted Stewart signs elsewhere.

There could be moves for those with contracts as well.

“We have to look at ourselves a little bit,” Hitchcock said. “Like adding (Jay) Bouwmeester and (Jordan) Leopold really enhanced our hockey club, it really helped us. They brought composure and ... and big minutes. But the people that we count on, that we’ve grown, have to play better, quite frankly. We need the guys that we’ve grown and built around to get to the next level.”

Not measuring up

Or, one might say, you need different guys. This no longer is the growing season for this franchise. It’s harvest time and the crop is not measuring up. When the Sunday morning general managers speculate, several names will be bantered about.

It was a frustrating season for David Perron, who has two years remaining on his contract. Flair and finesse is wonderful when it works, beautiful to watch, everybody wants a ticket. When it doesn’t, and when you lose, substance frowns on style and patience wears thin.

Perron scored goals in eight of 54 games this season. He pestered the heck out of Quick, but never pushed a puck past him. After producing 21 goals in 57 games a year ago, it’s hard to believe he had one goal in the last 28 games this time. Perron is only 24 and his skills are special, but if you’re trying to identify square pegs in round holes, he probably sticks out.

The goalkeeping situation lends itself to conjecture, and Jaroslav Halak has the spotlight dance.

His time in St. Louis has been good, bad and injured. When he was acquired from Montreal, Halak’s résumé was built with playoff heroics.

But after yet another injury late in the schedule and another resurrection by Elliott, Halak watched these playoffs from a front-row seat.

Safe to say he did not ingratiate himself with his supervisors by getting into a mid-series shouting match with Hitchcock. The airing of grievances is not uncommon between coaches and players. But in a Twitter-verse culture of electronic weasels, there’s no such thing as “in-house.” Word got out.

One would think management is satisfied that Jake Allen, instrumental in getting the team back on track, is NHL-worthy next season. Along with Elliott, three players for two spots. Halak has a year on his deal, but a goalie is expendable and you’d think the last one to tell off the coach might be first in line.

Another whose future seems uncertain is defenseman Ian Cole. He is a No. 1 draft pick from 2007, still only 24 years old, but the Blues kept him around all season and played him 15 times. They seemed to waste his year in terms of development and reduce his market value in one fell swoop.

Another element the Blues might look at is adding a former player to the coaching staff. And I can’t think of better candidates than Jamie Langenbrunner or Scott Nichol, if their playing careers are over.

The departure of Scott Mellanby was not insignificant, on those terms. He was a gasket between Hitchcock and the dressing room, a respected voice in the war room. The Blues have an outstanding group of coaches, but they might benefit from another “been there, done that” presence.

This team is not good enough, but it’s close. It drew the reigning Stanley Cup champs in the first round and gave the Kings all they wanted. But if they’re going to give more, they have to find some goal scoring, and they have to get better.

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Dan O'Neill is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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