HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When the dust settles and they shake off the sting of a sudden four-game sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Semifinals, the St. Louis Blues can take solace in the fact that a foundation has been laid and expectations will be higher moving forward.
The Blues accumulated the second-highest point total in franchise history with 109, changing coaches early this season after a 6-7 start before skyrocketing up the standings and winning the Central Division title for the first time since 2000 with a 49-22-11 record. They earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference and were two points shy of winning the Presidents' Trophy.
But after dispatching the San Jose Sharks in impressive fashion in the first round, the Blues crashed and burned against the underrated Kings. Players had their exit meetings Monday and Tuesday, and they are now headed for a summer of working on taking the next step heading into the 2012-13 season.
"Yeah. A week and a half, two weeks ago, we just beat the San Jose Sharks and had the world in the palm of our hands," winger Chris Stewart said. "It was definitely not the way we saw ourselves going out. Obviously our goal was to win the Stanley Cup, but we came up short this year. There were some good things that did happen this year that can't go overlooked."
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Among them were the accomplishments of goalies Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, who teamed up to win the Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals in the NHL (165) and fewest in franchise history in the modern era. It was one short of tying the NHL mark of the 2003-04 New Jersey Devils.
After taking over for Davis Payne on Nov. 6, coach Ken Hitchcock is a Jack Adams Award candidate for coach of the year, and captain David Backes is a finalist for the Selke Trophy, given to the most outstanding defensive forward in the League.
The Blues also set a franchise record for home victories with 30 and made it to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
"You accomplished a lot, but this time of the year, whether you don't make the playoffs or you lose in the first, second, third or even Stanley Cup Finals, unless you're holding the Stanley Cup and doing the celebrations, you're not satisfied," said defenseman Barret Jackman, who will be among a group of unrestricted free agents on July 1. "It's real tough. You never envision it. You always feel like yourself going all the way. For us to lose in four games the way that we did … to be sitting here and reflecting on everything, it's tough to take."
The Blues, who made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for only the second time since the lockout, have come a long way. And considering how far they've come, general manager Doug Armstrong put light on the fact that they are still a long way away from the pinnacle.
"We have to improve. We had a good conversation with our players," Armstrong said. "The glass has to be half full.
"We accomplished some things this season, but in reality, we're 12 wins away from being where we want to be, and 12 wins … looking at it that way, that's a lot of hockey. The key for us is to want to play another six weeks, to take the accolades that we're going to get as an organization about the improvement and how things are on the right track. It doesn't mean anything if we don't respond and get better and say thank you and go back to work."
The Blues had 14 players experience their first playoff series win against the Sharks, so the learning curve regarding how to win in the postseason has been accomplished. And despite having veterans [Andy McDonald, Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner and Kent Huskins] who own Cup titles, it was a raw lineup that learned a hard lesson in what the playoffs are all about.
"I think history shows that your first time making the playoffs in three or four years, to just wipe the competition and have a little jaunt through the playoffs and win a Stanley Cup is not historically what happens," Backes said. "You get a couple rounds, you learn from it, you learn your faults, you learn what players on your team cracked and you learn a lot about yourself. And then next year, you're even stronger for it.
"Maybe next year, [advance] to the conference finals or the Finals, and then the year after that you've learned all your lessons and it's time to put something through. It's not all in vain. There's a great lesson to be learned. Next year we're going to be better for it. We're not saying the third round's our goal next year. We want to win the Cup."
Hitchcock, who coached Dallas to a Stanley Cup victory in 1999, felt his team learned a valuable lesson against the Kings.
"I don't look at sweep, no sweep … I don't look at any of that stuff," Hitchcock said. "It's useless. They won four games. They won four games because they initiated for more minutes during a period than we did and forced us into response mode. When you're in response mode, you're reactionary, you take a poor penalty at times, you're on your heels, you don't create offense. … They did a better job. They learned from their two years previous."
The Blues understand fully and learned a lot.
"It was fun. You've got to enjoy the process obviously," said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who played less than 100 percent after suffering a MCL sprain to his knee in Game 1. "To fall on the throat like we did isn't the best feeling. But moving forward, I think there's a lot of things, especially with a young team, to take from it.
"[We learned] how hard it is to win in the playoffs. We were 12 wins away from winning the Cup. That's a lot of wins, especially at this time of the year. We learned a lot moving forward here. It was a fun process."
Among the Blues' unrestricted free agents are Jackman, Arnott, Langenbrunner, Scott Nichol, Chris Porter, Carlo Colaiacovo and Huskins. T.J. Oshie, David Perron and Stewart will be restricted free agents.