St. Louis and David Backes face an uncertain future, but tight-knit Blues went down fighting

ByCraig Custance ESPN logo
Thursday, May 26, 2016

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- His season had been over for 40 minutes when St. Louis Blues captain David Backes walked into the empty visitors' dressing room in San Jose.

His eyes were red and swollen, but not from a physical altercation, as might have been the case after nearly every other hockey game in his life.

They were red and swollen because his heart had just been ripped out.

But Backes did what leaders and team captains do. He stood up in front of the assembled media and tried to explain why it was the San Jose Sharks celebrating down the hall and not his team pushing the Western Conference finals to one more game.

And for the first couple of questions, he did exactly that. He kept it together and put into words the emotion, the disappointment, the sacrifice he and his teammates made to get this far and how it all just ended so quickly.

Then, in an attempt to try to articulate just how tight he and his teammates had become during a playoff run that included series wins against the reigning champion Chicago Blackhawks and Central Division-champion Dallas Stars, Backes stopped to give an example.

"He'll kill me for telling you this story," Backes said, taking a deep breath. "Game 5, I'm not feeling well. Steve Ott brings me something to help me feel better ..."

Ott gave Backes an infrared healing mat that Ott had used -- with positive results -- to help ease his own injuries. The gesture clearly touched his captain.

The tears began to flow for Backes as he shared what it meant for Ott to do everything he could to help his captain get healthy and stay on the ice.

"And knowing that he's the guy coming out of the lineup if I can play, that's pretty selfless. That's the kind of guys we have in here," Backes said. "You know the heart is in here, the ability is in here. We just came up short."

They might say otherwise, but these Blues got just about as far as they were going to go. They lost to the Sharks in six games but their stamina and window to win the Stanley Cup diminished when they weren't able to eliminate the Blackhawks and Stars without going to seven games.

By the time the Sharks fought off St. Louis' furious attempts to get back in Game 6 in the final minutes, it was too late. These Blues were gassed. They probably incurred a laundry list of injuries trying to catch up.

"There's a few guys held together by tape and a few guys who sacrificed a ton in there to get to this point," Backes said.

They play a maximum-effort, physical brand of hockey that isn't easy to replicate over and over again for an entire game, much less an entire series.

By Game No. 20, the Blues were done. That they took this run just about as far as they possibly could have wasn't much consolation because they saw the finish line.

Two more wins and they would have been playing for a Stanley Cup.

The Blues, unlike in postseasons past, didn't choke or disappoint this spring. They simply got beat by a Sharks team that was relentless in its tracking, completely eliminating the Blues' rush game. San Jose had more speed and more energy -- and the Blues could never get their punishing forechecking game going for long enough stretches to catch the Sharks.

"We thought we had a team ..." said Blues forward Troy Brouwer before correcting himself. "We do have a team that's a championship-caliber team."

He's right. They do. The Blues proved it by beating a championship-caliber team in Round 1. They just happened to run into another championship-caliber team in the Western Conference finals. That's why it's so hard to win a Stanley Cup.

Good teams go home earlier than they want in the Stanley Cup playoffs all the time. It doesn't make it any easier.

"When you don't finish celebrating with champagne and hoisting a Cup, it's disappointing," Brouwer said.

There's so much uncertainty surrounding the Blues moving forward. Backes' contract expires on July 1. So does Brouwer's. Players such as Kyle Brodziak, Scottie Upshall and the selfless Ott, all who had their moments during this playoff run, can hit free agency, too.

The coach that pushed this team just about as far as it could go, Ken Hitchcock, did so on a one-year deal.

The young players like Jaden Schwartz, Colton Parayko and Robby Fabbri earned invaluable experience about how to navigate a playoff run. Vladimir Tarasenko learned just how hard it is to score goals in the playoffs when a team checks as relentlessly as the Sharks do.

They'll use that experience down the line. They're too talented not to.

But there's no telling what's next for the veterans on this Blues team. In a cap system, it's just not realistic that the Blues will look the same next season as they looked in the handshake line after being eliminated.

This team won't be duplicated and that meant something to these guys.

"This group was the best I've ever played with," Ott said.

That's what made it so hard.