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Top Shelf: Same old story for the Blues

<p>For a while the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues were engaged in about as good a first-round battle as one could imagine.</p>

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - For a while the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues were engaged in about as good a first-round battle as one could imagine.

Then, of course, the situation fell apart for the Blues, adding yet another disappointing chapter to the club's postseason history.

In the end, a long-suffering franchise once again is left wondering whether it will ever taste postseason glory, while another - the Blackhawks - moved a step closer to claiming yet another Stanley Cup title.

A team can't do any worse than a four-game losing streak in the playoffs. Unfortunately for fans of the Blues, that's exactly how their team has gone down in each of the past three postseasons.

The Blues were knocked out of the second round by Los Angeles in a four-game sweep back in 2012. A year later, St. Louis held a 2-0 lead over the Kings only to drop four straight to lose the opening-round series. This year's six- game loss to Chicago went down the same way, with St. Louis jumping out to a two-game lead before losing four straight. In each of those playoff exits, the Blues were the higher-seeded team, but that didn't insulate them from the indignity of an early exit.

"Close didn't get it done," said dejected Blues captain David Backes after Sunday's Game 6 loss in Chicago. "Same scenario as last year."

It's apparent something needs to change in the Gateway City, but what type of change is needed remains a mystery. After all, the Blues are coming off the second-best point total in franchise history, so cleaning house would not seem to be an option.

Blues general manager Doug Armstrong has the unenviable task of picking and choosing what parts of his club stop working once the playoffs begin. But, because that is a problem that had existed in St. Louis long before Armstrong took over the reins, it's not expected to be an easy fix.

The St. Louis franchise has tasted its share of regular-season success over the years, but the playoffs ultimately have held nothing but heartache. The club entered this season as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders and for much of the 2013-14 campaign, it seemed like that wasn't such a crazy notion. But, a rough ending to the regular season allowed those old, uneasy feelings to creep in, and sure enough the campaign ended on a sour note for the Blues as they always do.

Of course, we knew heading into this spring's playoff battle that a really good team was going to be eliminated in the first round. In the end, the defending champion Blackhawks simply refused to be that team. The Blues, on the other hand, slowly accepted that fate.

After falling behind 2-0 in St. Louis, Chicago showed how dangerous it is when playing from behind. The Blues, meanwhile, displayed the franchise's penchant for coming up small when it matters most.

St. Louis hasn't made the Stanley Cup Finals since making three straight trips in the franchise's first years of existence. Back then, the Blues were the class of the NHL's West Division, which was comprised entirely of expansion teams like themselves, but St. Louis was swept by Original Six teams in all three of its appearances in the Cup Finals.

Since then, St. Louis has made it to the conference final round only twice, losing to Calgary in 1986 and to Colorado in 2001. For a team that has made the playoffs in all but eight of its 46 seasons in the NHL, that's a whole lot of underachieving.

The good news for the Blues is the current edition of the club is still young. The club stocked up on youthful talent during some recent lean years when St. Louis missed the postseason in five of six seasons from 2005-06 to 2010-11. This season, St. Louis tried to bolster that largely homegrown core with some help from outside the organization, but, obviously, that didn't work out, either.

Ryan Miller was acquired in a trade with Buffalo to hopefully provide the clutch goaltending that previous No. 1 netminder Jaroslav Halak was unable to bring to the table. Instead, Miller stumbled toward the end of the regular season after a brilliant start with his club. The struggles continued against Chicago, as Miller ended the series with a dreadful .897 save percentage and a 2.70 goals against average.

With Smith a pending unrestricted free agent, it seems both the Blues and the goaltender would be best served by going their separate ways.

Head coach Ken Hitchcock, however, still deserves a chance to lead this team next season, but the early playoff exits are not helping his job security. Still, it's hard not to have a little bit of sympathy for the veteran bench boss.

The injuries began to pile up on Hitchcock late in the season and that led to an 0-6-0 stretch heading into the playoffs. The late-season collapse allowed Colorado to swoop in and win the Central Division by one point, pushing St. Louis into a less-than-ideal first-round battle with the defending Cup champions.

With three of the NHL's best teams this season located in the Central, the first-round matchup between the division's second- and third-place teams was always going to end with a very good team being eliminated. In light of recent years, when Chicago has proved itself as the best team in the NHL on two occasions, it's not surprising the Blues didn't have enough to get past the Blackhawks this time around.

It's not exactly fair that St. Louis was tied for fourth in the NHL in points (111) and still had to face last spring's Cup winners in the first round. But in the playoffs, you have to beat who is put in front of you, and it does no good to complain about being the recipient of a bad matchup.

In a postmortem press conference held Tuesday at Scottrade Center, Armstrong referenced his team's inability to turn the corner and elevate its play, especially over the last two postseasons.

One blurb in particular sticks out among Armstrong's comments, and it's one that should make everybody from Hitchcock on down fear for their jobs.

"We're in the winning business," Armstrong said. "We're not winning at the appropriate time of the year and we have to fix that."

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