Fast start wasted as Blues fall short again

St Louis Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak (41), of Slovakia, looks for the puck after he blocked a shot during a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets Sunday, April 3, 2011, in Columbus, Ohio.

St Louis Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak (41), of Slovakia, looks for the puck after he blocked a shot during a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets Sunday, April 3, 2011, in Columbus, Ohio. Photo by The Associated Press.

ST. LOUIS (AP) — After 12 games, the St. Louis Blues had the NHL’s best record. They finished strong, too.

What happened in between left them out of the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons.

Several front-line players missed considerable time as David Perron, T.J. Oshie, Andy McDonald and Barret Jackman were all sidelined for at least 20 games. Too often in times of misfortune, the Blues couldn’t hang tough.

The Blues and the 2001 Phoenix Coyotes are the only teams in NHL history to earn as many as 20 points in the first 12 games and not make the playoffs. A franchise-record 9-1-2 start was wasted, immediately followed by a five-game losing streak and far too many lows that negated the good times.

St. Louis was a .500 team in early March before mounting a late charge to finish at 38-33-11 with 87 points for 11th place in the Western Conference — 10 points out of the final playoff spot.

“It’s set in, we’re bummed out,” forward Alex Steen said. “There’s no question the guys are disappointed with not being in the playoffs, considering the expectations we had on ourselves.

“It’s such a fun time come springtime when the weather starts warming up and the playoffs around the corner and you’re in that hunt.”

David Backes became the franchise’s first player with 30 goals, 30 assists and a plus-30 rating and is the likely front-runner to be the new captain. He finished at plus-32, by far the best on the team.

Rookie Alex Pietrangelo had a breakout season, emerging as the top defenseman. The Blues appear to have gotten the better of a February trade with Colorado that brought power forward Chris Stewart for 2006 No. 1 overall pick Erik Johnson, and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk also immediately jumped into a key role.

Stewart had 15 goals and eight assists in 26 games, including five multigoal games, and in just about one-third a season was second on the team with seven power-play goals.

It’s a young team, with most core players in their early to mid-20s. They just weren’t able to compensate for the losses of Perron and McDonald (concussions), Oshie (broken ankle), Jackman (broken finger) and defenseman Roman Polak (wrist surgery).

Perron, the team’s most gifted skater and puck-handler, played only 10 games before being sidelined by a concussion. The Blues are hopeful he’ll be back next season, but after the season finale, Perron said his symptoms still hadn’t subsided.

Coach Davis Payne, who completed his first full season, said the roster often wasn’t strong enough to overcome adversity. During a four-game skid in late February, the Blues managed only four goals. During an 11-game stretch starting in late November, they were held to a single goal six times.

“The understanding of how to win without your ‘A’ game, I think that’s the biggest message we have to gain from this,” Payne said. “There’s points to be had out there. It’s absolutely something we have to take forward.”

Players weren’t arguing the point.

“Obviously, with a few injuries it put a damper on it, but we need to learn how to play with those injuries, patch those holes, simplify our game and make sure we’re doing all the little things,” Backes said. “You can’t win every game 7-6 when you’re playing at half roster.”

Jaroslav Halak hit some high notes with seven shutouts in his first season as a full-time starter. But overall he was just OK.

“It was a learning year for me,” Halak said. “Everybody has ups and downs. I had mine.”

Other past first-round picks exhibited growing pains. Oshie was suspended for two games; Patrik Berglund turned it on after captain Eric Brewer was traded in mid-February while the Blues languished near the bottom of the conference. That was the first signal the franchise was looking to next season.

“I tried to play my way out of it and earn trust back from the team, and I hope I did that,” Oshie said. “If not, I’m looking forward to having a great summer and come to training camp in really good shape.

“I’ll come back more responsible and a better player.”

Next season, the Blues need a backup goalie and could use a veteran defenseman to helm a youthful group. Given ownership uncertainty, it’s likely they’ll be more dependent on improving from within. Entities that own 90 percent of the franchise have announced their shares are for sale, and even before chairman Dave Checketts and his Sports Capital Partners Worldwide put their 20 percent on the block, the payroll was among the NHL’s lowest.

“Yeah, it’s up in the air,” Backes said. “But our core group of guys, we have a great group. I think if it’s this ownership or a new ownership, that those guys will be the guys that carry us in the future.

“In the end, we’ll build something great here.”

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