Originally created 05/13/02

Injuries, inexperience short-circuit Blues' playoff run



ST. LOUIS -- Even with injuries and an inexperienced goaltender, the St. Louis Blues had no reason to give up.

General manager Larry Pleau said the Blues, a team supposedly built for the playoffs, gave a halfhearted effort Saturday while being eliminated 4-0 by the Detroit Red Wings to end a five-game series.

"I thought it was an embarrassing game," Pleau said Sunday. "We didn't show up to play and we folded the tent the last two periods. It was not a good ending."

The Blues were dispirited by a season-ending knee injury to captain Chris Pronger in Game 4. It didn't help that star Doug Weight was at half-speed because of an injury and that goalie Brent Johnson had played just one full season as a starter. St. Louis also proved to be overly reliant on its No. 1 line.

The Blues got nine of their 11 goals in the second round from the Pavol Demitra-Keith Tkachuk-Scott Mellanby trio.

St. Louis totaled only 16 shots in the finale, rarely testing Detroit goalie Dominik Hasek.

That's not the kind of effort Pleau expects from a team with a $55 million payroll even if they were banged up with Ray Ferraro finishing perhaps his final playoff run playing with a torn knee ligament and Shjon Podein weakened by a cracked rib.

"Everybody's hurt in the playoffs, and you play hurt," Pleau said. "It's no use in even talking about it."

Weight, slowed by an injury to his pelvis that knocked him out the final quarter of the regular season, wasn't interested in excuses either.

"There's challenges to anybody," Weight said. "When change happens, you have to answer the bell."

For the most part, Pleau wasn't happy with the team's regular-season performance, either. Despite all the high-priced talent, the Blues were in danger of missing the playoffs before closing on an 8-2 rush to slide into the fourth seed in the Western Conference.

Mediocre seasons from wingers Scott Young and Cory Stillman, a healthy scratch in the final game, likely will end their tenure with the team. Young will be an unrestricted free agent while Stillman becomes a restricted free agent.

Re-signing Tkachuk, a restricted free agent, will be a priority. He was a physical presence and also led the Blues with 38 goals in the regular season. But Pleau said the team's payroll won't rise much, if at all, for next season.

"We'll have some tough decisions," he said. "We're going to stay within our payroll."

Pleau was happy with the progress of Johnson, 25, who gradually took over the No. 1 goalie job. Johnson enjoyed bursts of brilliance in the playoffs, like his three consecutive shutouts of the Blackhawks in the first round, offset by goof-ups like handing Steve Yzerman what turned out to be the deciding goal in Game 4 on a poor clearing attempt.

"Johnny had an excellent year for us," Pleau said. "He got 34 wins and handled himself well in the playoffs.

"We made the decision a year to go that Johnny had the ability to be a No. 1 goalie and he's proved he's headed in that direction. You've got to put seasons and playoffs together to put yourself in that position."

Johnson was encouraged by his overall performance.

"I definitely think I can build off this and learn from this," Johnson said. "I played the way I wanted to play."

Losing Pronger, injured in Game 4 when Steve Yzerman ducked to avoid a check and sent him tumbling to the ice, was a devastating hit for the Blues. He averages 30 minutes per game and with his huge wingspan anchors the defense.

"You could see they were a dispirited team without their captain," Hasek said. "They weren't the same team that they were at the beginning of the series."

The prognosis for Pronger's return from a torn ligament in his right knee is unknown, and he could miss the start of next season. The Blues won't have a timetable until swelling goes down in the knee and that hasn't happened yet.

Defense wasn't the culprit in the finale. Coach Joel Quenneville said Pronger's replacement, rookie Barret Jackman, playing in only his second NHL game, was his team's best player.

The Blues have made the playoffs 23 consecutive years, the longest active streak in professional sports, with no glory to show for it. They've made two trips to the conference finals in that time.

In recent years the Red Wings have been a formidable obstacle, eliminating the Blues four times in the last seven years.