ST. LOUIS - Mouth agape, Ken Hitchcock struggled to process the buzzer-beater that crushed the St. Louis Blues' season. Goalie Brian Elliott sank to his knees in disbelief.
For the second straight playoffs, the Blues finished with four straight losses to the Los Angeles Kings. They didn't get swept this time, it just felt that way.
Especially to Hitchcock, who called out the cluster of high draft picks that have had several chances without making a splash in the post-season for a franchise still awaiting its first Stanley Cup. The roll call of first-rounders found wanting on the latest fade-out would be a long one.
"What I'm going to tell them is it's not good enough," Hitchcock said after the 2-1 eliminating loss in Game 6 Friday night. "If you want to be a champion, it's not good enough.
"If you want to be a champion, you're going to have to find a way."
T.J. Oshie, a first-rounder in 2005, was minus-3 in a game that included his first two career playoff goals. Patrik Berglund ('06) had one goal and David Perron ('07) none. Rookie Vladimir Tarasenko ('10) was not a factor in his single appearance.
Berglund had the best chance to tie it in the third but came up empty on a break-in, then was seen head in hands on the bench. They'll carry the memory of Dustin Penner's game-decider for months.
"On that play you're just kicking yourself," said captain David Backes, a second-rounder in 2003 who has delivered leadership and gritty play. "Those are the little things that get magnified. They dug deeper than we did, the fate is we're going home and they're continuing on."
While quick to credit Conn Smythe-winning goalie Jonathan Quick as the best player in the series, Hitchcock said the window of opportunity remained open for the Blues. But only, he was quick to add, if the core steps up.
"Quite frankly, we need more from the people that are homegrown," Hitchcock said. "And that's something we'll address the off-season and in conversations with each individual.
"We need the boys we built around."
The ones they traded for, too.
Among the disappointments they didn't draft were Chris Stewart, held to one assist after leading the team with 18 goals, and Andy McDonald, held scoreless.
Alex Steen and Vladimir Sobotka were among the few standouts at forward, Steen with a handful of clutch goals and Sobotka with consistent play all over the ice. The checking line of Adam Cracknell, Chris Porter and Ryan Reaves lived up to its "CPR" nickname.
Goaltending and improved defence led the April surge. Elliott led the NHL with 11 wins in April and before Game 5 had allowed a single goal in eight consecutive games. Trade-deadline pickups Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold provided needed stability and composure to the back line, to the benefit of another former first-rounder, Alex Pietrangelo ('08).
The Blues had won 14 of 17 after taking the first two games of a physical series that featured three goals in the final minute of regulation, two overtimes and every game decided by a single goal. With no margin for error against the defending Stanley Cup champions, they paid for their lapses.
Up 2-0 in the series and 2-0 in Game 3, they relaxed and lost. They failed to take advantage of several opportunities in Jonathan Quick's 1-0 shutout in Game 4. After carrying play most of the second period in the 2-1 Game 6 loss on Friday night, they let up in the closing seconds.
"We hit a few posts and a couple sitting right there in the crease," Backes said. "It's beginning to be a broken record."
Hitchcock absolved Elliott of blame on the deciding goal, just as he did after Slava Voynov's overtime goal in Game 5 because a Blues stick interfered with the flight of the puck both times. On Penner's goal, he judged the puck jumped 4 feet.
He blamed everyone else.
"We didn't get the puck deep twice when we had a chance to clear, we didn't check the right player and then it went off our stick," Hitchcock said. "We panicked with the puck and it ended up in our net."
Players, who planned to clear out lockers Sunday, know there's room for improvement.
"This team was hot going into the playoffs, added pieces at the deadline," Backes said. "We took on some big players and we were expecting better than this.
"I don't know what the next step is, but right now it's just sour."