More than half of the teams in the National Hockey League make it to the playoffs each spring, but there are often only a handful or so that have a legitimate shot of winning the Stanley Cup.
This season, however, is different.
Now seven years since the institution of a salary cap, equality throughout the NHL has reached an all-time high. While the cap itself is far from perfect and could use some restructuring during the upcoming collective bargaining negotiations, it's effect has never been more conspicuous than it is today, in the midst of the first round of the 2012 playoffs.
“The tiers, the layers that once existed, aren't what they used to be," said Chicago Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman, according to Bob Verdi of the Daily Herald. "You don't see two or three teams setting themselves apart. This, plus the maturation process of the cap, has made everything so tight.”
Depending on each individual's allegiances, different people will have different stances on whether or not the salary cap should exist. However, there is no argument as to what kind of an affect it's had on the league, and subsequently the excitement we've seen thus far in the postseason.
This competitive balance has led to quite a few unexpected storylines over the past several weeks, none more significant than the struggles of Vancouver and Pittsburgh.
The Canucks and Penguins fell into quick 0-3 holes in the quarterfinal round, and both remain on the brink of elimination heading into Friday's action.
Vancouver, winner of this year's President's Trophy, has been considerably out-played by the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings. Meanwhile, despite becoming the Eastern Conference favorite upon the return of Sidney Crosby, the Penguins had been outmatched by the Flyers before they hung 10 goals on their cross-state rival to stave off defeat in Game 4.
Elsewhere, nearly every other series is either deadlocked at 2 games a piece or lopsided in favor of the underdog. For the unbiased onlooker, it doesn't get much better than that.
"To me, there's nine teams in each conference that are so close that I think that's why you see these lower seeds going like hell right now," added St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, per ESPN. "I honestly believe they think they can win the Cup. You've got 16 teams that honestly believe—and it's not fake—they honestly believe they can win the Cup. … It's just what it is now."
The positive effects of the cap have been exemplified many times this year, the best example being the series between the Coyotes and Blackhawks: Phoenix, the most financially unstable franchise in major American professional sports, hold a 3-1 series lead over Chicago, which happens to be among the most financially affluent organizations in the NHL.
While a similar occurrence would've certainly been possible in the past, the Coyotes would be up against much steeper odds if the 'Hawks were allowed to spend an infinite amount of money on their roster.
“You won't see teams repeating year after year any more,” Bowman said. “Can't happen with the salary cap.”
Even though big market teams may not agree, this parity is good for the game. No longer is the NHL's hierarchy front-loaded, nor are there any free passes in the postseason. Now, a legitimate chance at the Cup becomes a reality simply by clinching a playoff berth.
Once you're in, anything is possible.
Andrew Hirsh is a credentialed NHL writer and a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewhirsh