Five reasons Blues' season abruptly came to an end
After impressively knocking off in five games many prognosticators' preseason choice to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final this season, the St. Louis Blues themselves were brushed to the sidelines themselves by a buzz saw.
In impressive fashion, the Blues dissected the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference Quarterfinals and became the darling pick as a Stanley Cup favorite. But just as quickly as they took apart the Sharks, the Blues were taken apart themselves and learned some hard and valuable lessons in being swept out of the postseason by a very game and hungry Los Angeles Kings squad -- a No. 8 seed -- culminating with Sunday's 3-1 loss at Staples Center.
Despite all of the regular-season accolades that resulted in one of the best seasons in franchise history, here are five reasons why the Blues are suddenly watching the rest of the playoffs from home:
1. Undisciplined penalties
Too many times throughout the series, the Blues were taking unnecessary, undisciplined penalties that helped sway momentum.
While the penalty kill only allowed one Kings power-play goal over 21 chances in the series, coach Ken Hitchcock called the penalties momentum killers, and what's even more disturbing is that the majority of them were taken by seasoned, veteran players that have been through the grind and the wars before.
A perfect example was Sunday's elimination game in which the Blues took five penalties -- all in the offensive zone 200 feet away from their own net.
"We took penalties at the wrong time," Hitchcock said. "We got emotionally wrapped up during the shift and couldn't shut it down when we needed to shut it down."
Hitchcock wanted to keep this a five-on-five game, an area the Blues thrived in as the top team in the regular season [allowing an NHL-low 102 goals], but could not do so at the right times.
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As the current Blues' roster is constructed, it's not built to overcome deficits on a consistent basis. Time after time throughout the series, the Blues were fighting from behind and were forced to play out of their element.
They only led in the series once -- in Game 1 -- and that lasted all of 7 minutes, 42 seconds. So in the series as a whole, the Blues either were tied or trailed for 233:18, which included the final 223:02.
Each and every time the Blues thought they were back in a game or on the verge of possibly wresting away control, the Kings had an answer.
In Game 1, when David Backes gave the Blues their only lead of the series, the Kings tied the score 7:42 later after Jonathan Quick made a pair of outstanding saves on Andy McDonald and another on B.J. Crombeen that prevented it from being a 3-0 or 4-0 first-period lead.
In Game 2, even though the Kings embarrassed the Blues with a four-goal first period, the Blues tried to push back and got a McDonald goal 18 seconds into the second. But Justin Williams answered back just 1:08 later to reassert the Kings' dominance as they grabbed a 2-0 series lead.
In Game 3, Chris Stewart scored the tying goal early in the second period. It was what the Blues needed, but Dwight King, whose shove from behind on Alex Pietrangelo in Game 1 helped break the Blues down mentally after Pietrangelo missed Game 2, reestablished L.A.'s lead just 40 seconds later.
And in Game 4, with the Blues trying to salvage their season, they knotted the score at 1-1 on Kevin Shattenkirk's goal midway through the first period. But Dustin Brown, who was a key catalyst in getting into the Blues players' heads, gave L.A. the lead -- and the series -- for good 6:43 later.
3. Big players' lack of production
If you look at who the Blues consider their top six forwards -- that group includes Backes, T.J. Oshie, Alex Steen, McDonald, Patrik Berglund and David Perron -- they accounted for seven points in this series, none coming from Steen, Oshie and Berglund.
Led by McDonald's eight points and Berglund's seven points, that group was dominant against the Sharks, which included going 6-for-18 on the power play. But against the Kings' shutdown unit, it was slim pickings.
The battle between the Blues forwards and Kings defensemen went to the Kings' group handily in this area. The Blues' gunners could not get any sustained zone time on a consistent level until the second period of Game 4, and even then, it was already too late.
The Blues were able to impose their will on teams throughout the regular season with an impressive forecheck and they thrived off defensive zone turnovers. It was not there in this series. They made life too easy on Quick and did not get the kind of traffic in front of L.A.'s netminder necessary to win a series.
As good as Brian Elliott was during the regular season with an NHL-leading goals-against average (1.56) and save percentage (.940) to go with a franchise-record nine shutouts, the Blues needed Elliott to be every bit as good as he was in the regular season in light of Jaroslav Halak's high ankle sprain suffered in Game 2 of the conference quarterfinals.
The tandem of Halak and Elliott, which won this season's Jennings Trophy, was in unison because of their ability to push each other all season long.
When the pressure was on Elliott to be "the guy" with Halak down through at least the conference semifinals, he wasn't able to withstand it. Not all of the Blues' problems were Elliott's fault, but as a last line of defense, there were holes. The Blues had a number of glaring issues, including a shoddy defensive unit, but in Game 3 when there was an opportunity to jump back into the series, Elliott had his worst game as a Blue.
Elliott finished the series 0-4 with a 3.29 GAA and .854 save percentage. He finished the postseason 3-4 with a 2.37 GAA and .904 save percentage.
5. Home-ice failure
The Blues finished the regular season with a 30-5-6 home record, among the best in the NHL. It was also the most wins in franchise history on Scottrade Center ice. But they were 2-3 in the postseason, including losing both Games 1 and 2 against the Kings. That really put the team in a bind going to L.A.
"As much as we played really well here [in Los Angeles], we lost the series at home," Hitchcock said. "I don’t think we played well at home during the whole playoffs as we did in the regular season. That’s something we’ve got to address from a focus standpoint or a living standpoint."