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Despite playoff exit, St. Louis Blues see plenty of progress

ST. LOUIS - Minus stars Paul Kariya, Erik Johnson and Eric Brewer, the St. Louis Blues were the NHL's best team the second half of the season.

That's what they'll hang onto, the 9-1-1 finish from a roster heavy on youth that enabled the franchise to end a three-year playoff drought. Getting swept by the Vancouver Canucks in the first round while going 1-for-24 on the power play, that they'll try to forget.

"If you could add a couple of free agents to this team, like Erik Johnson and Paul Kariya, that would be pretty good," chairman Dave Checketts said. "And maybe get Eric Brewer back.

"Who knows that this group could accomplish?"

The Blues were the sixth seed in the Western Conference a year after finishing in a tie for the fourth-worst record in the NHL. Eleven players made their playoff debuts, with only forward Keith Tkachuk and defenceman Barret Jackman still around from their last appearance in 2003-04.

Next season, the Blues expect the experience to start paying off.

"These guys learned some great lessons, learned what playoff hockey is all about, and they'll be better for it," Checketts said. "I'd like to be the top franchise in the league and I think all the makings are here."

Chris Mason established himself as a durable front-line goalie after seizing the job in mid-season from since-demoted Manny Legace. The kid line of David Perron, T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund was often the team's best, and Perron notably stepped up his play in the post-season. Speedy, shifty Andy McDonald was the top offensive threat before a broken ankle, and he came back just as strong.

Brad Boyes and David Backes established themselves as go-to scorers, with Backes adding a physical presence. Kariya figures to be motivated heading into the final year of an often disappointing US$18-million, three-year free agent deal.

"My memory's fading a bit, but I can't remember any team that has been more of a pleasure to coach than this group," coach Andy Murray said. "It's been great."

Along the way, they recaptured a dormant fan base with raucous standing room crowds for both home playoff games.

"It became a lively building again," Murray said. "The last home game against Columbus and then the two playoff games, it just kind of gives you chills."

Perhaps the biggest question is whether the 37-year-old Tkachuk, still vital coming off a 25-goal season, will be back.

"I think Keith will play," Murray said. "Actually, I'd be willing to put a lot of money on it."

Tkachuk said he won't make a decision right away.

"It was a great opportunity to help out, to see the guys grow," Tkachuk said. "It was fun, a do-or-die situation the last three months. Not only did the young guys learn something from me, but I learned something from them."

It was no surprise that the Blues' biggest deficiency most of the season and definitely in the playoffs was on defence. Without Johnson and Brewer, the Blues were short at that position.

In the finale, Carlo Colaiacova and Jackman both made key miscues.

The inevitability of the Canucks advancing eased the sting of the sweep somewhat. Still, the bowout game left a sour taste, beginning with another power play dud and culminating with the series clinching goal by Alex Burrows that came on the most innocent-looking of shots.

The Blues' power play was eighth in the NHL in the regular season, but too often looked for the perfect play to beat Roberto Luongo in the series. They were blanked on seven chances in Game 4.

"The power play crushed us," Tkachuk said.

Especially in overtime, when they got six minutes with the advantage including four straight on Ryan Kesler's double-minor for high sticking.

"It was one of the differences, that's for sure," Burrows said. "They just really didn't get any Grade A chances."

Mason believes the team might have relaxed after completing its climb back from last in the conference in mid-February to clinch a playoff berth with one game to go in the regular season. The Blues also won the regular-season finale 1-0 at Colorado, but he thought the drive had dissipated.

"Then in Vancouver (we were) sitting around for three days after battling for three months," Mason said. "I think it took us a while to get emotionally invested in this series, and it was too late."

In Game 4, the Blues put Luongo to the test by firing 49 shots and keeping constant traffic around the net. They needed time to get cranked up, trailing 2-0 in the second period before the sense of urgency sank in.

The rest of the way, they made an impression.

"They had a huge push," Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said. "Until then, we had the game pretty much the way we wanted. That's the biggest push any team has gotten against us in a long time."

Several months from now, the Blues will try to take the next step from playoff team to contender.

"I think you can only gauge how valuable experience is by the way you play the next time you play," Murray said. "So we'll see in September."



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