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Blues finally ran out of gas after second-half surge

by Larry Wigge
ST. LOUIS -- Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault bumped into St. Louis Blues General Manager Larry Pleau in the hallway as he went to make his postgame comments. He stopped, shook Pleau's hands and said, "It wasn't a four-game series ... it was a four-game battle."

It was actually about a 40-game battle for the Blues, who went from last place before a Jan. 19 matinee in Boston on to a 17-7-5 run the rest of the season -- climbing over nine teams to finish sixth. But it didn't make things feel any better after St. Louis was swept in four games in the Western Conference Quarterfinals by the Canucks Tuesday night.

It was a typical Blues performance as they rallied from a 2-0 deficit nine minutes into the second period to tie the game before the second intermission. In the overtime, the Blues had three power-play opportunities and fired 18 shots at Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo.

Then it came down to one shot, and overtime became over in time -- with just 18.9 seconds showing on the scoreboard as Alex Burrows scored his second goal of the game to give the Canucks a 3-2 victory and four-game sweep over St. Louis.

Chris Mason had to hold back the tears. He had stopped 33 of 35 shots before Burrows wristed a shot at him with the first overtime winding down.

"I didn't know how much time was left. I was watching the pass. Watching him get ready to shoot and then I lost it for a second," said Mason, who literally carried the Blues on his back after coming in to replace Manny Legace in that game in Boston in January. "A couple of guys crossed in front of me and ... I lost it."

You could feel the sorrow in Mason's voice. You could see the disappointment in the dressing room.

"It was a pretty down group in the dressing room there. For about 15 minutes, there wasn't a word said. Everybody just kind of sat there," Blues coach Andy Murray said. "They really invested a lot. We talked earlier in January that if you want to get a return in life, you've got to be prepared to invest a lot, and these guys invested a lot in our team and trying to put this franchise on the map. They probably faced more adversity this year than I've ever seen in a hockey team, but they found a way to get it done."

Until Tuesday night.

"It's tough," a quiet Keith Tkachuk said. "You get into the playoffs, you work hard all year and it paid off. We reached one of our goals to get into the playoffs, which nobody really gave us a chance. But it's really disappointing. We wanted to get back to Vancouver for Game 5 and who knows what would have happened. We let it slip away. ... I'm disappointed right now.

"The one thing that killed us this whole series is the power play. We had opportunities throughout the series and we didn't capitalize. Their goaltender played really well and their penalty kill played really well. It's something you've got to just bring up another notch and we didn't do that.

"(The power play) cost us the series. I'm taking nothing away from them, they played really well. They played hard. We had our moments, but the power play really crushed us."

In the end, the Blues got great goaltending again from Mason, but only scored five goals in four games. That's not enough to beat a quality goaltender like Luongo, even if St. Louis wound up with 49 shots on goal in the game.

The Blues came into the playoffs ranked third on the power play and eighth in penalty killing. In this series, they gave up three power-play goals to Vancouver in a 3-2 Game 3 loss and wound up sputtering with the man advantage, going 1-for-24 in the four games.

It was the first trip for the Blues to the playoffs since 2004 and it didn't last long enough for St. Louis fans. It was also the first time the Blues were swept in a playoff series since 1994.

"I wasn't ready for this to end," Mason said over and over again. "I don't care how many more consecutive games I would have had to play. I wasn't ready for this to end."
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