Long gone are the days of the 21-team NHL when only five teams missed the playoffs and each could count on good odds to be back the following season. Today there are 14 teams who miss the NHL playoffs each season, and just a handful who can rightly expect that any sign of progress demands they be there.
As the season winds down to its final weeks, five teams who absolutely must make the postseason are in grave danger of falling short. Two of them faced off on Tuesday night.
Faced with a critical game against their chief competition for the Eastern Conference's eighth seed, the Buffalo Sabres destroyed the Washington Capitals in D.C. Tuesday night. The 5-1 win puts the Sabres in eighth place by two points with five games left, and increases the odds that one of these two will be the odd team out in the East.
Both the Sabres and the Capitals are among the teams for whom missing the 2011-12 playoffs would be a catastrophic failure.
(The Ottawa Senators, whose 88 points have them in seventh place two ahead of Buffalo, would be disappointed but not destroyed by falling short. They entered this season with lowered expectations befitting a rebuilding year, so this playoff push is a bonus.)
Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres are in a mad 7-1-2 dash that has resurrected once-dashed playoff dreams. But that doesn't mean landing in ninth place would be an "A" for effort. After Terry Pegula bought the team last year, he opened the checkbook and empowered GM Darcy Regier to spend to the cap in summer of 2011. This season has already been a disappointment that's led to trades and uncomfortable questions; a full playoff miss would make for zero return on Pegula's investment.
Washington Capitals: Also with the Sabres at the top of the NHL's big spenders? The Capitals, who have an estimated $66.3 million payroll against the salary cap. After being considered playoff favorites the last few seasons -- and bowing out early every time -- missing completely would be a massive step back for the franchise.
They already fired the coach, Bruce Boudreau, who brought the team back to respectability. The way they have flailed under Boudreau's replacement, inexperienced franchise hero Dale Hunter, stirs tough questions about GM George McPhee's roster and his choice of leaders behind the bench.
Florida Panthers: The Capitals' 5-3-2 listing in their last 10 games has eased the pressure on their division rivals in South Florida. Also big spenders over the summer -- though at $55.6 million, nowhere near the Capitals in cap spending -- the Panthers splurged because they had to: The franchise has not made the playoffs since the year 2000, the longest drought in the NHL.
In that time they've had multiple owners and seven different head coaches, all the while teasing their fans with near-misses on multiple occasions. Now five points ahead of Washington after Tuesday's games, the Panthers are probably in the clear for the Southeast Division title with six games of their own left. But if they were to collapse now, it's hard to imagine a tortured Panthers fan will be left standing.
Los Angeles Kings: Out West, the team that was supposed to be steadily ascending the way the Capitals once did is the Kings. They too are big spenders, committing north of $63 million on the season. After making the playoffs the last two seasons but bowing out in the first round, big offseason and in-season acquisitions of ex-Philadelphia Flyers Mike Richards and Jeff Carter was supposed to bring them to the next level.
Instead, they're in a dogfight just to claim eighth place in the West. Like the Capitals, they've already fired their coach, Terry Murray, who got them to the playoffs, and hired a similar coach in Darryl Sutter. Wednesday they play Sutter's old team in Calgary, and a win could lift them from ninth to seventh. If they fall short, the Kings will be another budding contender left to question its plan.
San Jose Sharks: Competing with the Kings for a low playoff seed or, alternatively, the prized third seed that comes with the Pacific Division title, the San Jose Sharks are in an unfamiliar position. Picked as a Stanley Cup favorite virtually every year, they've won four consecutive Pacific titles and finished well over 100 points for five seasons running.
But now they're just hanging on, and a Kings win Wednesday night combined with a Sharks regulation loss in Anaheim would drop the Sharks from the third seed to the playoff bubble.
Like the Senators in the East, the Sharks and Kings' other bubble competitors' playoff aspirations are tempered by the realistic acknowledgment of transition years. The Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche and Phoenix Coyotes all have made season-long challenges for a playoff spot that may yet bear fruit. But unlike their California rivals, missing out would be but a speed bump early in a journey -- and not cause to doubt the car they've invested so much in to take them to the finish line.
For full coverage of the various NHL playoff races, you can check in with our network of 30 hockey blogs, and you can stick right here with our StoryStream at SB Nation's NHL hub.