ST. LOUIS -- Packing up and heading home for the season is a day nobody looks forward to -- and when it happens as early as it did for the St. Louis Blues, who were projected as Stanley Cup contenders heading into the shortened season, the sting feels even greater.
The Blues served notice to the League that they were going to be among the top-heavy teams vying for the Stanley Cup after last season's 109-point campaign.
And after the trials and tribulations of a season that started well, sunk low enough where the Blues needed a reality check, then saw them re-gather themselves and finish sixth overall in the standings, another crash course was served up by the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Kings, who eliminated the Blues in a four-game sweep in 2012, took four straight once again -- but only after spotting St. Louis the first two games. They eliminated the Blues on Friday in Game 6 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals.
The Blues, who finished the regular season 29-17-2 after going 12-3-0 in April to finish the regular season and earn the fourth seed in the West, felt like they closed the gap on the Cup champs. They felt all six games were winnable. But in the end, as coach Ken Hitchcock told his players, it wasn't good enough.
"If you want to be a champion, it's not good enough," Hitchcock said. "You can't allow the goalie [the Kings' Jonathan Quick] to outwork you. If you want to be a champion, you're going to have to find a way.
"It's not good. It's like the players. Got a bad feeling in the stomach. When you've become a good team like we've got here right now, we've got a good team. To not see the players benefit from that is disappointing. You want to see them have success for all the work they've put in."
Scoring goals was the big problem for the Blues, who were only able to solve Quick 10 times in six games, as the L.A. netminder was able to stop 167 of 177 shots in the series.
"To see the type of team that [the Kings] have and we were really close, very frustrating," Blues wing David Perron said. "I think they were better than us, obviously, to win four in a row. We've just got to find a way to score more goals."
When the dust settles and the Blues wipe off the sting of being eliminated by the Kings in consecutive seasons, they can reflect on the strides they continue to make. Blues fans have been clamoring for a Stanley Cup since the franchise's inception in 1967, but will have to wait another year.
"As frustrated and disappointed as I am, I'm still excited," Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. "When I got here five years ago to where we are today, through the work of a lot of great people that are currently here and no longer here, we're moving in the right direction and that's a positive. There's disappointment in our playoffs, but we're not going to throw the baby [out with] the bathwater. We are making strides. It's difficult at this time for maybe people to see those strides, but we are a much more competitive team this year against the L.A. Kings than we were a year ago, which is a positive."
Added Hitchcock, who will finally enter his third season with the Blues in September with the benefit of a training camp: "We've gone from an average hockey club that had a great year last year, where every dance went the right way, every shot hit the post, who fought to become a very unified group. To be this close and not get that last gear is disappointing."
The Blues enter the offseason with plenty of work to do as far as player personnel. Armstrong indicated that the team has every intention to qualify their restricted free agents [notables include Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Chris Stewart, Patrik Berglund, Kris Russell, Ian Cole and Jake Allen] and then work on resigning them to multi-year contracts. As for the unrestricted free agents [notably Andy McDonald, Jordan Leopold, Jamie Langenbrunner, Scott Nichol and Adam Cracknell], Armstrong said they will do a full analysis on each individual and decide if they make sense moving forward.
But in moving forward, the Blues feel like they have the pieces to continue to contend. It's just a matter of sticking with the plan and getting through that elusive door.
"My belief in playoff success is you knock on the door, you get to the door enough times, sooner or later, you'll get through. Where we are now is we're at the door consistently for two years. We're going to get back there and if we put ourselves in this position year in, year out, at some point, we'll get through." -- Blues GM Doug Armstrong
"I said to the players we were a bad team, then we were a bad team that had a good year," Armstrong said. "Now we're a good team that was supposed to have a good year and we finished sixth in the NHL. That's pretty impressive.
"My belief in playoff success is you knock on the door, you get to the door enough times, sooner or later, you'll get through. Where we are now is we're at the door consistently for two years. We're going to get back there and if we put ourselves in this position year in, year out, at some point, we'll get through. I truly believe that we're moving in the right direction."
With a nucleus of Pietrangelo, Shattenkirk, David Backes, Alexander Steen, Perron, Oshie, Stewart, Berglund, Jay Bouwmeester and top picks Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko, the Blues feel if they can get a little more from each player moving forward, they can position themselves to contend for years to come.
"We've got to go and rework it and figure out the five percent that needs to change just like L.A. did four years ago ... we've got to figure that out," Hitchcock said. "But I'm disappointed because we were right there. Part of it's exciting, but it doesn't feel exciting right now. It feels like it's really disappointing.
"We have a really good thing going here right now. We have a lot of buy-in, we have a very strong core group of leadership that really cares and is committed."