When Alex Burrows put the puck between Chris Mason's legs with 19 seconds left in overtime Tuesday night, the Blues' season was instantly over. Less than 10 seconds later, I turned to the guy behind me and said, "I can't wait until next year."
Sure the outcome was disappointing. Losing four games in a row and getting swept for the first time since 1994 was no fun. This was a close series with three of the four games decided by one goal. The Blues put nearly 50 shots on net Tuesday night with another 16 blocked. They had total control of the game in the second period and had more chances in the third period and overtime. This was not a team that would go quietly.
Yet it just wasn't quite enough. You can't convince me that the Canucks are a significantly better team than the Blues. Roberto Luongo proved to be the difference in the fourth game and the series. But that's not what we can take away from this playoff defeat.
This first foray into the postseason in five years accomplished a couple of important things. First and foremost, it validated the rebuilding plan put in place by the front office. The young players drafted and developed by the organization are the real deal, and I'm not just talking about David Perron, TJ Oshie and Patrik Berglund. David Backes and Jay McClement have stepped into leadership roles on the team and are playing big minutes at critical times during the game. Roman Polak stepped up and shouldered a huge load on the blue line down the stretch and in the series. His speed and steadiness are things you can't coach into a player. He's still raw, but he's realizing his potential every game. And then you have the decisions to re-sign Andy McDonald (what do you think his contract offers would have been after this series?), the long-term contract for Brad Boyes and acquiring Alex Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo.
Second, it's highly likely this team starts the season hungry and motivated. The law of averages says a cornerstone player won't get hurt on the golf course, no one will need two hip surgeries and the emerging best player on the team won't break his leg sliding into the boards. Berglund and Oshie both had series to forget. Mason can play better and has played better this season. More importantly, you could see in game four this team adapting to the pace and physicality of the playoffs. They were learning.
Finally, this team has put hockey back on the map in St. Louis. The final home game of the regular season and both playoff games were difficult tickets to get. The building was rocking Tuesday with much of the lower bowl standing during the entire overtime period. The noise was ear-splitting, the atmosphere raucous. In the national hockey media (ok, Canadian media), the St. Louis crowd is earning a reputation as making the Scottrade Center a difficult place to play.
At the end of the game, both teams came together for a great hockey tradition, the post-series handshake. These two teams knocked the crap out of each other for four straight games. There were hard feelings along with the hard hits. Yet here they were, each player looking the other in the eye, congratulating each other for a hard-fought series. The Canucks earned the series win, the Blues earned the Canucks' respect. Then after that was over, the team gathered at center ice and gave the fans one more salute. And a majority of fans stayed to applaud as well. Only one player was visibly missing from the moment: Keith Tkachuk. The 38-year-old veteran is one of the few prime players for this organization not under contract for next season. I don't know if him leaving the ice immediately meant he was simply emotional with the moment or knew this would be the last time he wore the Blue Note. Either way, I hope he knows he was part of this comeback story and has earned the appreciation of a majority of the fans.
Of course we've seen Blues defeats during the playoffs every other time. This isn't the first time the team has been swept. But this might be the first time I've had a satisfied feeling and not anger or utter disappointment or frustration. It's a weird feeling. I guess I just know that the best is yet to come for this team.