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Why this year’s Blues playoff exit doesn’t sting as much

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St Louis Blues v Vancouver Canucks - Game Six Photo by Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

Everybody takes losses differently. Fans grieve in their own ways after their team’s season ends.

Some shake it off and pour another drink, choosing to drown their sorrow in the alcoholic highlights of an evening. Others will walk the streets rambling to themselves. A few Blues fans will rewatch Friday night’s Game 6 against Vancouver, where the Blues fell 6-2 and were eliminated.

Those fans will dissect and decipher every single moment. Sports can play a tune in someone’s head without asking to enter, leaving a mark that doesn’t move for weeks, sometimes months. How you look at the 2019-20 St. Louis Blues depends on how you feel about this year in general, and how you think about championship time brokerages.

Here’s the thing. Short and sweet. I still feel last year’s Stanley Cup championship, the first in my or anyone else’s lifetime. It’s okay to still feel great love and thrilling admiration for that indelible time in this team’s history. A bittersweet history with more heartbreak than successful calmness, this hockey team has broken a few hearts. Most of them were mended after June 12, 2019. Some asked for more.

Early on and even towards the end of the 2019-20 season, I was in the latter party. Lord Stanley felt great and I was happy. The demons of postseason’s past have vanished into thin air, taking away all the “maybe next year” disgust that had clouded previous successful regular seasons. Losing in the first round garners little sympathy. The playoffs are, and should be, everything to a team’s final legacy for that particular season.

But as time expired last night and midnight gained steam, I wasn’t enraged. Disappointed is the better word. I use that word due to the fact that there was firm belief that the pieces were there to repeat as champions. No hyperbole. Just look at the roster, and you saw the talent and depth required to make another run.

And up until mid-March, that seemed to be the destination. Possibly a rematch with the Boston Bruins, with a chance to make Brad Marchand cry once again. But it wasn’t to be. Boston is moving on and St. Louis will not. They have been released from the bubble, free to see their families and get in some golf while the weather is still warm and the sky carries blue.

When you think about it, the regular season was a constant test. The Blues got to feel for a few months what Michael Jordan felt his entire career: The seemingly endless pressure to do it again. They didn’t escape October without losing their best scorer in Vladimir Tarasenko. Jordan Binnington wasn’t as magical as he was the season before. Justin Faulk didn’t make the impact the team had thought when they acquired him late in the offseason.

Jay Bouwmeester collapsed on the ice due to a heart ailment, ending his season and most likely, his career. Things don’t go as planned, and a team can buckle. One loss isn’t the end of the world, but they can add up and weaken a team. I also believe that Pat Maroon being gone left the Blues without a net front presence and weak on the size meter against other teams. Call me old school, but a big guy isn’t a bad thing to have on your side in a fight.

The Blues didn’t buckle until the end, unable to find their game in the odd playground of meaningful summer hockey. They didn’t look good from the start, losing in heart-wrenching fashion to the Colorado Avalanche on a last second goal. Losses to Dallas and Vegas followed, and the #4 seed awaited. The Canucks got out to the early series lead, and maintained control that way. The Blues had to battle back in a pair of relentless games to even the series, and looked strong and confident in Game 5 with a 3-1 lead. But Vancouver capitalized on a few mistakes, and came back to steal the game. The Blues were already down and out before the puck dropped in Game 6.

No season can pass without a goaltending controversy. Once Binnington’s struggles became apparent in the Round Robin and carried into the Vancouver series, many shouted loud and clear for Jake Allen. The starter-turned-backup was up to the task, playing outstanding in net and guiding the team to that mini-comeback. But the magic was lost in Game 5, and Binnington couldn’t rebuild it in Game 6 early on. Again, not meant to be.

A crazy season and should only give way to an unpredictable and potentially painful offseason. The uncertainty with Alex Pietrangelo’s situation causes alarm. The seasoned veteran and Captain is up for a new contract, but no one wants to talk about it. People insist that this lost salary and a couple trades can make it alright, but then again, why does Doug Armstrong seem so unsure? Pietrangelo has dodged the question mostly, but seems to make it known the market will be explored.

Pietrangelo should explore all options. He turns 31 years old in January, so this is his last chance for a big contract. While Covid and the pandemic has taken a piece of most NHL team current salary caps and future plans, some GM will find room for a Petro-type talent. As my good friend, and Game Time loyalist, Dan Reilly, would say: “You’ll spend 6-8 years finding another Pietrangelo.” He’s right, you know. Pietrangelo is a top 5 defenseman in the NHL and should be paid like one.

Tarasenko’s future is cloudy as well. Did he re-injure the shoulder in the playoffs, or was it just a little tweak? Will that push him back for the upcoming season, set to start in December? Don’t try and answer now unless you’re a shoulder specialist. Tarasenko has injured the same shoulder twice and didn’t look good in his limited time on the ice these past few weeks. Few know what the next 100-150 days look like for him.

The same things that plagued the Blues during the regular season crippled them in the postseason: Lack of Tarasenko and Bouwmeester as stabilizing forces, a defense that could get messy in a heartbeat, and a goaltending situation that couldn’t always save the day like they did in the previous season.

But all in all, I won’t look back on 2020’s results in a nasty way. Nope. The Blues didn’t outright flop. They were the top team in the West when play was paused in the spring. A different year produces different results. If a few things go the Blues way in the last month, they could still be playing. “Could” is the idea there. From the first puck drop, Vancouver was a better team.

And that’s okay, because the Blues were the best team last summer. It can be dangerous to hang your hat on past success, but I can make it work for at least the following season. After all, what good is a Stanley Cup if you can’t cherish it for more than a year? Why is there a time limit on feeling good about it. Screw that.

Believe me when I tell you that standing outside OB Clark’s in the blazing sun watching Alexander Steen lift a miniature Cup still sits in my chest. Watching nearly every playoff game with my brother and dad still hits good. Hanging out with Jon Hamm, Craig Berube, Bobby Plager, and company after the Dallas Stars series win is something I won’t soon forget.

This makeshift restart was always a wild proposition. The round robin games seemed to add a bumper onto the postseason launch, and the entire team setup for seeding was halfway absurd. Teams that had no business in the playoffs were there to wreak havoc, and there were no fans in the stands. While it will count the same, it was never going to feel the same.

I choose to live in the past today. Take a trip right back to June of last year. Heck, I’d go back to February and witness St. Louis being adored by the NHL national community at the All Star Game. You can’t stay in the past, but it’s a nice vacation for a dark hour.

2020-21 provides a fresh challenge with new goals and possibly new players. It’s all scary, so I’ll just not worry about it for a while. I don’t even think I’ll watch much more hockey this summer. When the Blues are done, I depart with them. Write less, worry a lot less, and let the mind drift to other things.

There will be Blues hockey again. More playoff glory awaits. Decisions come first, but bourbon is never a bad idea. I’ll pour one tonight and celebrate another year of Blues hockey, jagged and misshapen as it seems. Everybody deals with a playoff exit differently. Some sulk, some reminisce, and others just eat ice cream and chicken wings.

I’m going to hang my hat on a wonderful memory for the time being. See where that takes me.