|Blues players left the ice after Game 4 to high-fives and a well-deserved standing ovation from the St. Louis crowd (Getty Images). |
It’s not often a team gets swept from the playoffs but still receives a standing ovation from the home crowd.
But that’s exactly what happened Tuesday in St. Louis after Vancouver’s Alex Burrows scored with 18 seconds left in overtime to send the Canucks to the semi-finals and the Blues home for the summer.
Typically, in a city still looking for its first Stanley Cup championship, a first round exit would be cause for disappointment and heartache.
But not this year. Not this team.
Through hard work and determination, the Blues overcame lengthy injuries to Paul Kariya, Andy McDonald
, Erik Johnson, T.J. Oshie
and captain Eric Brewer. Their All-Star goalie from one season before, Manny Legace, struggled so badly he was assigned to the AHL to get his game in order. And as late as February, the team was dead last in the competitive Western Conference.
If you told me last summer that the 2008-09 Blues would endure all of that yet still finish sixth in the Western Conference, I might have laughed at you. I certainly wouldn’t have believed you.
And shame on me for that. For not having faith that David Backes
would step up with a career season to score 31 goals. That Brad Boyes would follow up a 43-goal campaign with another solid year of lighting the lamp. That Chris Mason would surface and put together probably the best second-half performance the Blues have ever seen between the pipes. And most of all, that Andy Murray would get the absolute best from a team that could have cashed in their chips and walked away months ago.
“We stopped (feeling sorry for ourselves due to injuries) a long time ago. The more we said it, the more they just overcame the odds and moved all the way to sixth place,” said Blues chairman and principal owner, Dave Checketts. “Who knows what this group could accomplish? A very tight group of guys, they watch out for each other, conduct themselves well in the community. I’m very, very proud of them. I can’t say enough about them.”
And you shouldn’t have to say more, Dave. Let the numbers speak for themselves.
Down the stretch, the Blues were the best team in the league, bar none. They went 25-9-7 in their final 41 games to complete an unimaginable run to their first playoff berth since 2004. I can honestly say in more than 15 years of passionately following the team, this year stands out as the best season I can remember.
Sure, 25 consecutive years of making the playoffs is memorable, as is winning the President’s Trophy in 2000 with the league’s best record in the regular season. But those teams were so talented they didn’t have to work as hard as our 2008-09 Blues. This season, going from dead-last to sixth in just two months, is perhaps the biggest accomplishment in the Note’s storied history.
For most of the guys, getting swept in their first playoff appearance isn’t a storybook way to end such a memorable year. And it probably doesn’t feel good knowing they worked so hard only to see the playoffs come and go so quickly. But you have to lose playoff games before you can learn how to win them, and you can bet this young team will take some valuable lessons away from this past week.
|Andy Murray's team finished sixth in the Western Conference despite a league-leading 465 man games lost to injury (Getty Images). |
“We worked hard (to get in the playoffs),” said Mason. “You could say it was like playoffs the last half of the season, but the reality is, this is different. I think now we have a taste of it. Obviously, our expectations are going to be higher next year and we’ll know a little bit better if we’re going into this situation again.
“It’s a tough way to end. It’s too bad, but I just think now that it’s over, it was just a great experience for our guys. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
While listening to a post-game radio show after Game 2, I heard fans phone in to suggest that these were the “same old Blues,” that they “play well in the regular season but choke in the playoffs.” That couldn’t be further from the truth.
This is a team that beat unbeatable odds to clinch a playoff spot that nearly every hockey writer in the country said they wouldn’t clinch.
Murray said it best after Game 4: “As a coach, you often get asked by the media: is this group a real special group to work with? Is it better than another team? I never, ever comment on that because it would be unfair to the people that you’ve coached before at different levels,” he said. “(But) my memory is fading a bit and I can’t remember any team that has been more of a pleasure to coach than this group. It’s been great.”
Said Keith Tkachuk: “I’ve got a lot more gray in my hair, I’ll tell you that much. It was fun, a do-or-die situation the last three months. There’s a bright future here in St. Louis, no question about it. I know the Blues. This team will be great down the road.”
And coming from a guy who has had plenty of success at this level, that means a lot. I think it's safe to take Tkachuk at his word.
These guys deserve a standing ovation, not a first round exit.
So one more time, at least until next October, say it with me...Let's Go Blues.