With playoff run coming to end, Blues come full circle

ST. LOUIS -- If Shakespeare was penning the story of this seminal St. Louis Blues season, he might start something like this:

"I come not to praise The Streak but to bury it."

Or something like that.

As the hours tick away on this most unusual of NHL seasons, with excitement growing in New York and Anaheim and all the playoff markets in between, the sad sack Blues are a footnote, an asterisk.

Crippled by injuries and trades and an ownership vacuum only recently filled, the team's locker room looks like a college town bus station at spring break, full of fresh-faced (but anonymous) minor leaguers and a handful of tired veterans who can't wait to put this mess behind them.

Head coach Mike Kitchen figures he's crammed about five years worth of learning into the past eight months.

"Yeah, it's been tough trying to handle a thing like this," Kitchen said. "We made decisions here that we hadn't had to make here in a while."

Yet surely a team that makes the playoffs for 25 straight seasons -- and then finishes dead last or darn close -- is worthy of something more than to be swept aside like last night's game program. Well, isn't it?

But that's the funny thing about The Streak.

It has been darkness and light for the Blues, yin and yang, a constant banner of success, yet a constant reminder of the team's many failings.

The Blues' finish at the bottom of the NHL standings this season (they entered play this weekend in 29th spot, one point ahead of 30th-place Pittsburgh) marks the end of the longest current streak of postseason activity in pro sports. Economics, parity and the large number of teams in the four major sports leagues ensure the Blues will be the last of their kind.

But the streak, as impressive as it is, has never translated into playoff success. In fact, the legacy of the team's playoff failures is profoundly shocking in light of the streak. In 25 straight seasons of making the playoffs, the Blues have won two playoff series in one season just twice. They failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup finals and have yet to win a Stanley Cup in almost 40 years of existence.

"Would you have given up the record to win a Stanley Cup?" asked highly regarded broadcaster Joe Micheletti, who came to the Blues from Edmonton in time for the 1979-80 season that began the streak. "Certainly you would. There's a void. No question that through the 25-year streak there was a void."

In many ways, the end of The Streak has brought the team full circle.

During the season before the streak began, 1978-79, the Blues won just 18 games and coach and GM Emile Francis told new owner Ralston Purina he was going to build around homegrown talent like Brian Sutter, Bernie Federko and Wayne Babych.

Francis drafted Perry Turnbull with the second pick in 1979 (the team's highest draft pick), and brought in Mike Liut from the dissolving World Hockey Association. There were promising prospects from other teams who didn't quite work out: Blake Dunlop, Rick LaPointe, Ralph Klassen and Bryan Maxwell, and talented Swede Jorgen Pettersson arrived the following season.

"He took a bunch of guys that maybe hadn't lived up to expectations in other organizations and gave them a shot here. The chemistry was phenomenal," said Turnbull, who early on lived in a house with Liut and Micheletti.

That first year of the streak, the Blues finished strong under coach and former Blue Red Berenson, who took over behind the bench for Francis in early December 1979.

"We had a torrid finish and made the playoffs," Liut recalled.

The expectations in St. Louis were so modest that Liut's contract called for him to make $1,000 per win beyond 15. He finished with 32 wins. There was also a $20,000 bonus for making the playoffs. Given his base salary of $70,000 or so, the Blues' surprising season turned out to be a bonanza for the netminder.

"It was kind of a diverse group. I think we had a lot of fun," said Liut, who was dealt to Hartford in the middle of his sixth season in St. Louis.

The Blues finished second in the old Smythe Division with a 34-34-12 record, but once they got to the playoffs, the team's inexperience caught up with them and they were swept 3-0 by Chicago in a preliminary round series.

"Everybody showed up for the playoffs and nobody knew what to do," Liut said.

While the product improved on the ice, Francis encouraged his players to be visible in the community, make appearances, sign autographs.

"He did all the right things. He sold the game all over again in St. Louis," said forward Larry Patey, who came to St. Louis from the California Golden Seals in 1975. "It's like a big circle when you change ownership. There's always a good feeling like there is now."

Does Patey think the fortunes of a team closing in on its 40th anniversary are about to change? "I really do. And a couple of months ago I wouldn't have said that," he said. "[The ownership void is] finally is over with and I can't wait for it to happen. It's a shame what's gone on with the team."

"I don't think you could ever think that it was going to be the type of a streak that it was," added Micheletti, who played 137 games with the Blues and is now the color analyst for the Islanders. "But the overall feel was that the organization was going in the right direction."

The next year, the team took a giant step forward, cruising to a 107-point campaign and first place in the Smythe Division. Federko had 104 points and Wayne Babych had 54 goals. But after knocking off Pittsburgh in the preliminary round in a fifth game that went to double overtime, the Blues fell to the New York Rangers in six games.

Liut recalled the schedule being "barbaric" because the Blues played 11 games between April 8-24.

During the series against the Rangers, Liut lost 13 pounds.

"Come on, what do you think happened? By the third period, I was out of gas," recalled Liut, now a successful player agent based in the Detroit area.

That story of the 1981 playoffs would set the tone for the next 24 years. Sometimes the Blues were very good and the playoff expectations high. Sometimes they squeaked in.

But their postseason failings became a rite of spring, as familiar and predictable as the barges floating lazily down the Mississippi.

In 1986, the Blues went the limit in defeating Minnesota and Toronto in the first two rounds and then dropped a seventh game to Calgary, denying the Blues their first trip to the finals since the wacky days in the late 1960s, when the first six expansion teams were all in one conference. The series represents one of the two times the Blues managed to win more than one series during the streak.

The other was in 2001, when the Blues finished with 101 points. Facing the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference finals, the Blues outplayed the Avalanche in every game, but lost 4-1 in large part to the tepid play of netminder Roman Turek.

"They had good teams. They were close. I don't know if you can put a finger on it," Liut said. "It's weird that they haven't gotten to the finals. It always seems to be somebody else."

Vancouver, Anaheim, Buffalo, Carolina, Calgary. All teams that have endured disappointing stretches, but somehow managed to put the pieces together long enough to at least venture into the finals.

Not the Blues.

At a time when the Blues appeared to be ready to take their shots at the Cup in the late 1990s, it happened to coincide with a time when the Red Wings, led by former Blues bench boss Scotty Bowman, were the cream of the NHL crop.

The Wings dispatched the Blues in the playoffs in both 1997 and 1998 en route to Cup wins.

"They really were our nemesis," said Doug Weight, one of a handful of high-priced players acquired in recent years to get the Blues over the hump. He was traded to Carolina before this season's trade deadline.

In 2003, the Blues built a 3-1 series lead over Vancouver and then, with the team ravaged by illness, dropped three straight to bow out in the first round again.

"Incredible and unacceptable," Weight said.

You look at the entire spring of 2003, with Detroit and Dallas dispatched and the surprising Mighty Ducks going to the final, "and you definitely kick yourself," Weight said. "You look at all the opportunities missed and you kind of shake your head. But that's hockey."

Maybe that's what happens when you make the playoffs for 25 straight seasons. The karma catches up with you.

The old scientific equation that suggests for every action there is an equal and opposite action holds true for the Blues.

Their perpetual success during the regular season has meant they have not had the luxury of building their future on top draft picks.

After drafting Turnbull with the second pick in 1979, the highest the Blues have selected in the past 25 years is ninth in 1988 and 1989, when they selected Rod Brind'Amour and Jason Marshall, respectively.

Of course, the Blues haven't helped themselves by mismanaging the draft picks they did have.

The team gave up five first-round draft picks when they signed restricted free agent Scott Stevens away from Washington in 1990. Then, a year later, they lost Stevens as compensation for signing Brendan Shanahan away from the Devils.

Later, the Blues were found to have tampered with Stevens in an attempt to sign the defenseman as he was about to become a restricted free agent in 1994. They were fined $1.5 million and had to forfeit another first-round pick, plus a swap of first-round picks with the Devils.

There was also the 1983 entry draft when the Blues didn't draft anyone at all. In fact, the team didn't send any representatives to the draft as Ralston Purina was engaged in a dispute with the NHL over its plans to sell the team to owners in Saskatoon.

Viewed through this prism, the playoff streak takes on more epic proportions.

Even at the beginning of this season when there was uncertainty, there was also reason to believe this team would be in the playoff mix.

While Chris Pronger, Pavol Demitra and Scott Mellanby were gone and Al MacInnis retired, there was still proven netminder Patrick Lalime and Keith Tkachuk and Weight and a veteran supporting cast that included Scott Young, Mike Sillinger and Dallas Drake.

But Tkachuk came to camp overweight and then got hurt. Former rookie of the year Barret Jackman suffered a broken jaw. And Lalime was, well, not very good.

"We didn't give [Lalime] much help. But that didn't work out exactly as most people had thought," Weight said. "Everything that could go wrong did go wrong."

And maybe, in the end, that's the way The Streak was destined to end, at rock bottom.

The way it began.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.