Each NHL season ends with this picture. Players have spent their whole lives dreaming of being in it. Grown men of character and skill have wept being part of it. Every fan on planet earth is sure this is the year.
Until it isn't again.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs are a war of attrition unlike any other in professional sport. The best regular season team has gone home in the first week more than once, and there is nothing to suggest that fate could not await again this year.
The hockey gods are at their best (or worst) this time of year. One crazy bounce, one fluke goal and six months of hard work and sacrifice go up in flames. One crazy bounce or one fluke goal and a team that has no business playing on does just that.
Someone's team is going to wind up in that picture up there in June. Here's why it probably won't be yours.
WHY THEY CAN: Roberto Luongo is playing the best hockey of his career. Which Sedin twin do you think you can stop? Really? If ever a team were loaded, this is it. Forget the past, the present is all that matters.
WHY THEY CAN'T: Its about that time of year for Roberto Luongo to turn pedestrian, start leaking in bad goals and kill his team....again. Yes, the past does matter, and that's this team's real problem.
WHY THEY CAN: The Bruins have managed to squeeze just enough offense out of their lineup to back up Tim Thomas' brilliant season. This team knows that the clock is running out quickly, and will take its "now or never" attitude straight down the throats of opponents starting with Montreal.
WHY THEY CAN'T: Tim Thomas just isn't enough to win 16 more games this season. At times, he's been brilliant. But at this time of year, you can't fatten up on Ottawa, Florida and the Islanders.
WHY THEY CAN: Joe Thornton knows the clock is running out on him and isn't about to leave anything in the locker room. Dany Heatley is finally ready to stop being a selfish player. The team is finally headed into the playoffs with a head of steam rather than coasting to the finish line.
WHY THEY CAN'T: This team misfires more often in April than a Peugeot. The Sharks lead the league in blown playoff appearances, and until they find a way over that hump, it's a burden they have to bear this time every year. That is too much to bear, even for this better-than-ever team.
WHY THEY CAN: Corey Perry is an offensive force to be reckoned with. So is Ryan Getzlaf. Think your team has enough to stop them both? I didn't think so. Add Teemu Salanne's burning desire to finish on top, and some added grit down the stretch, and this team is a serious contender.
WHY THEY CAN'T: Goaltending has been fine for the regular season, but unless Jonas Hiller is up to the task of dragging this team through the next three months, then all is lost.
WHY THEY CAN: The Capitals have finally learned that they can beat teams without scoring six goals a night. They will never be confused with the Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1970s, but they finally know where their defensive zone is located. They are also playing right into the streak of the visiting team in the Winter Classic making it to the finals every year.
WHY THEY CAN'T: The post season is squarely on No. 8's back. When was the last time he got the job done in a playoff series or tournament? Nobody has ever won the Cup playing musical goaltenders, and between Michal Neuvirth and Semyan Varlamov, nobody has been able to take the job and run with it this year.
WHY THEY CAN: The Stanley Cup playoffs are a "been there, done that" experience for this group. They have done it time and time again, and know just when they have to turn it on. Pavel Datsyuk can turn a series all by himself, and Nicklas Lidstrom might have just enough left in the tank for one last run.
WHY THEY CAN'T: Jimmy Howard has been better this year, but he is not battle tested and did not show well in the playoffs last year. It's beyond Chris Osgood to ride to the rescue anymore. This team has a million miles on it and might have to use every last inch of tread left on the tires just to escape the first round.
WHY THEY CAN: They have had four months to learn how to live without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and figured out a way to win with solid defense and everyone chipping in on the score sheet. Marc-Andre Fleury has been brilliant, and could steal a round all by himself playing the best hockey of his career.
WHY THEY CAN'T: No Sid, no Geno, no Cup. Not enough offense left lying around to score a critical goal in a critical game. Staal, Fleury and Letang are worn out after shouldering a load just to get to the postseason. The fanbase has already given the team a mulligan for this season.
WHY THEY CAN: Wanna get in a shootout with this bunch? Pick your poison here: Briere, Carter, Richards, or Giroux. All are lethal and all want to wash the taste of the Finals out of their mouths. Power play is a nightmare to defend.
WHY THEY CAN'T: Had the third worst record in the conference and 6th worst in the league over the last ten games. All momentum headed into the playoffs is negative. Return of Michael Leighton to the playoff roster is playing with the head of Sergei Bobrovsky who now looks like a rookie in net. Chris Pronger is wounded and ran out of gas in the playoffs last year.
WHY THEY CAN: This is a young, explosive team that has been ready to take the next step for more than a season. Jack Johnson will become a force in the playoffs, its only a matter of when. Jonathan Quick is the best goaltender east coast fans have never seen in person.
WHY THEY CAN'T: This team has been in the process of taking a giant step backwards all season and could be nothing more than Shark bait. No real leader has emerged here just yet. Maybe next year.
WHY THEY CAN: They almost did last year but had to take the road less take through Washington and Pittsburgh. Nothing they face this year can be this tough. Have shutdown defenseman in Hal Gill and one man offense in Mike Cammalleri. They also play a defensive style perfectly suited for the playoffs.
WHY THEY CAN'T: The Montreal fans will eat Carey Price and his confidence alive at the first sign of trouble. Price isn't enough if this team has to face the offensive firepower of a Washington or Philadelphia. Good offense, but not good enough to win a firefight with better offensive teams. The entire city EXPECTS the Stanley Cup. That's too much for this team.
WHY THEY CAN: The hottest team in the NHL over the last ten games. Speed up front can be difficult problem to handle in the neutral zone. Thomas Vanek can surprise more than a few with his work up front. A return to health of Ryan Miller could launch this team's confidence. Could be catching Philly at just the right moment.
WHY THEY CAN'T: Jhonas Enroth just isn't enough once the playoffs start. What happens if there is no Ryan Miller? Nothing, that's what. Not much size up front. Secondary scoring an issue.
WHY THEY CAN: David Legwand might finally take a step up and become Rick Nash. Mike Fisher might finally show leadership and score a critical goal. Pekka Rinne might be able to stand on his head. Anaheim's goaltending is a mess. Beat them and the momentum just might carry the day.
WHY THEY CAN'T: Pekka Rinne can't do it all by himself. Legwand is liable to disappear and take the offense with him. There isn't enough offense to begin with.
WHY THEY CAN: St. Louis, Stamkos and Vinny are a frightening array of offensive talent and are supported by a solid group of forwards. Power play can turn a series.
WHY THEY CAN'T: If Dwayne Roloson is the answer, maybe you had better rethink the question. The Lightning simply don't have anything between the pipes. You don't win like that.
WHY THEY CAN: Ilya Bryzgalov could be this year's Jaroslav Havlak. Team plays a defense oriented style that can lock down the best of opponents on any given night. Could score tons of momentum from a first round upset of Detroit,
WHY THEY CAN'T: You can't win 0-0 games. There is no scoring here.
WHY THEY CAN: You must knock the champ out, not just down. A first round KO of Vancouver would get the juices flowing again. Patrick Kane and Johanthan Toews can outscore entire teams.
WHY THEY CAN'T: Rookie goaltender in Corey Crawford isn't ready for this. Defense just OK. All of the depth that carried them to the Cup last year has been gone since the summer.
WHY THEY CAN: Henrik Lundqvist could stand on his head for three months.
WHY THEY CAN'T: Even the best goaltender in the world can't do that. Outside of that we got nuthin'. So do they.