HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- The St. Louis Blues gathered at the rink one final time before heading their separate ways, their feelings leaning toward disappointment and frustration after another exit in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It was locker cleanout day at the Ice Zone inside St. Louis Outlet Mall on Wednesday, and it came sooner than they expected.
A pick by some to win their first Stanley Cup, the drought will go into a 48th season in 2014-15. But a year after learning the hard lesson of losing a 2-0 series lead in the first round against the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, the Blues suffered the same fate in 2014 against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
After losing four straight in the six-game Western Conference First Round series, players Wednesday echoed the sentiment expressed by general manager Doug Armstrong and coach Ken Hitchcock the day before: There was a lack of killer instinct.
"That's obviously what you'd like to see happen when you've got a team down 2-0 and you get a pretty close game in Game 3 and then an overtime game in Game 4 and then another overtime game in Game 5," said Blues captain David Backes, who missed Games 3 and 4 against the Blackhawks after taking an illegal hit to the head from Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook.
"It's been said a lot in sports that stepping on the throat, that final blow, is a lot of times the toughest one to administer," Backes added. "It's still too fresh to probably come out of there with good lessons. We're going to learn from another heartbreaking experience, but hopefully that's one of the things that we can start to acquire ... that sour taste becomes so sour that you want to give that final blow as soon as you can and abruptly and definitively as possible."
Backes, who returned for Game 5, also played with a broken toe on his left foot sustained April 8 against the Washington Capitals. He, along with several teammates, played at less than 100 percent in the series.
"I don't know if I was as effective as I would have been if I was full strength," Backes said. "But again, we've got to deal with those just like every team probably had injuries that they were playing through. Together as a collective group, we need to get the job done, and it wasn't to be obviously in Round 1, and we've got to have these year-end meetings already."
For the Blues' core players, including Backes, forwards T.J. Oshie, Alexander Steen and Patrik Berglund, and defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo, this is the third year in a row they've been eliminated from the playoffs with four straight losses. Backes, Steen, Oshie, Berglund and defenseman Barret Jackman were here in 2009 when the Blues were swept by the Vancouver Canucks in the first round.
"The first year against L.A. when we were swept, it was really like a smack in the face," Shattenkirk said. "And then we got out to 2-0 leads and then we're doing it because we're playing the right way early in series. You just have to stay with that game plan and ... it's hard because you're playing the same team over and over again. They're going to make changes in their game plan. We have to make our changes as well, adjust and execute. But at the end of the day, it comes down to burying a team. I don't think that that's not in this locker room, but it hasn't been there the last two years. We have to collectively go and try to find reasons why and try to change that within our team."
The Blues won a franchise-best 52 games in the regular season (52-23-7), and losing in the first round was not what they had in mind.
"It feels like a big letdown, I don't know if it's a step back," Oshie said. "But it's hard, it's so early, it's so fresh that it's hard to really ... we're still all in a little bit of shock and awe, I think, that we're not coming to the rink and practicing still. So, it's hard ... I think everyone feels the same way. No one feels worse than the players do; the coaches, the general manager, the fans ... no one feels worse about losing out than the players do. It's hard, it's hard to talk about."
Judging by the way Armstrong spoke Tuesday, the Blues will move forward with a need to make changes.
"That's Doug and the front office, their decisions to make," Backes said. "... Do we need to turn this thing upside down and start over? I don't think that's the case, in my personal opinion, not that that matters. For me, we've got a lot of great character guys in here that are good friends that love to be around each other and love to go to battle with each other. Correct, we didn't get the job done, but I think we'll learn lessons and be better coming out the other side."
One of the pressing issues that needs to be addressed is if the Blues choose to bring back goalie Ryan Miller. Acquired near the NHL Trade Deadline, Miller can become an unrestricted free agent July 1. He said the door to St. Louis is not closed.
"Yeah, I don't close any avenues with anybody, especially in this kind of profession," said Miller, who was 10-8-1 with a 2.47 goals-against average and .903 save percentage in the regular season, then 2-4 with a 2.70 GAA and .897 save percentage in the playoffs.
"I'm just trying to make my best impression wherever I'm at," he said. "I know it didn't work out in this playoff series; I think it's a good group here and it's up to management to make decisions about my situation going forward."
The Blues expect to be a Cup contender in 2014-15, but another early playoff exit wore thin with the fan base, a tough sell for the players when they return for training camp in September.
"I don't hold anything against [the fans] for that," Shattenkirk said. "They're entitled to being upset about this. Of course, we are too. For them on the outside looking in, it's hard because they just have to go through it every year and have been waiting a long time.
"We obviously want to be the ones to change that and give them what we know they deserve and to really kind of underperform this year, it hurts."