ST. LOUIS -- The Winnipeg Jets found only disappointment in a season that started with high expectations and ended in the Western Conference First Round.
The Jets were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 3-2 loss to the St. Louis Blues at Enterprise Center on Saturday, when they were dominated most of the way.
By being the first home team to win a game in the series, St. Louis won the best-of-7 series and will play the Dallas Stars or Nashville Predators in the second round.
[RELATED: Complete Jets vs. Blues series coverage]
"It's painful as [heck] because you think you're right there," Jets coach Paul Maurice said. "But you got beat by a team that thinks the exact same thing. So we came in and earned the (99) points that we earned and the spot that we earned, and they matched it. When we got into this series, they were a little better in a few areas than we were over the course of five [games] and they were [a heck] of a lot better than we were tonight.
"And that's what's going on around the League. We didn't hit the eight seed and finish 40 points ahead of these guys. These guys finished with what we did and they were a little better."
Expectations soared after the Jets had the second-best record in the NHL last season before reaching the Western Conference Final, which they lost to the Vegas Golden Knights in five games.
But the Jets were unable to create the same kind of momentum going into this postseason. Winnipeg held first place in the Central Division for much of the season but went 16-15-3 after the NHL All-Star break and 2-4-1 in the final seven games of the regular season, which dropped them to second behind Nashville.
Video: Schwartz records natty hatty, helps Blues win series
Then they ran into third-place St. Louis, which was the best team in the NHL after Jan. 1 (30-10-5).
"It's definitely nice entering the playoffs playing really good hockey," Jets forward Bryan Little said. "I mean you see it with these guys, you see it with a couple of other teams in the League right now. So, yeah. Last year, I felt like we were a more confident group and playing better going into the postseason, whereas this year it felt like we were struggling with our team confidence at the end of the year. Struggling to get wins. It's tough going into the playoffs trying to find that."
Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler said every opportunity lost is disappointing, no matter the circumstances. And he said he believes the Jets got a lot of things right this season.
"This is a tough trophy to win," Wheeler said. "Maybe our best just wasn't good enough today. And their best was pretty darn good. In situations like that, you look for the resolve in your group. You look for how guys fight. And we played until the last whistle. That's the way I see it."
Wheeler, serious and direct as he almost always is after games, was adamant in refusing to assign blame.
"I don't find any hangover from the way we played down the stretch," he said. "If anything, we were playing pretty darn good in this series. That inch here or there was the deciding factor. That's a big deal. I don't mean to take any importance away from that. But that was the deciding factor. It wasn't like we dragged [ourselves] into the series and got beat up."
Video: WPG@STL, Gm6: Blues, Jets shake hands at center ice
Assessing how their season ended earlier than hoped will occupy the time in the coming days. Beyond that, the Jets have some important decisions to make on their pending free agents.
Forwards Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and Andrew Copp; defensemen Jacob Trouba, Joe Morrow and Nathan Beaulieu; and goalie Laurent Brossoit each can become a restricted free agent July 1. Forwards Brandon Tanev, Kevin Hayes, Par Lindholm and Matt Hendricks; and defensemen Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot each can become an unrestricted free agent.
Laine, who scored 30 goals this season, and Connor, who scored 34, are each at the end of his entry-level contract and are likely to earn a substantial raise. Trouba, about to end a one-year contract of $5.5 million, Myers and Chiarot make up half of the Jets' regular top-six defensemen and also have to be considered priorities.
Fitting those pieces under the expected NHL salary cap of $83 million next season will be a challenge, which makes it more than likely that forward prospects Mason Appleton and Kristian Vesalainen, and defenseman prospects Sami Niku and Tucker Poolman will become NHL regulars next season.
Wheeler, who is signed through 2023-24, said he'll have one thing on his mind this offseason.
"Our challenge this summer is finding a way to get that extra inch," he said.