The first puck dropped on the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 14, and up until now we have been treated to some tremendous games, outstanding individual efforts and a bevy of courageous performances that have left fans shaking their heads.
And the journey has finally reached the last stage.
Yes, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are the proverbial marathon -- not a sprint -- and the journey to 16 victories continues to illustrate why winning the Cup is the most arduous assignment in sports.
"There's a certain amount of fortitude, there's a certain amount of perseverance that it takes to get through four rounds and win," Pittsburgh Penguins
coach Dan Bylsma
said. "You need to have a good team, good players. People need to rise to the occasion. It is so difficult."
"When you climb Everest, conditions have to be perfect," Carolina Hurricanes
President and General Manager Jim Rutherford said. "The skies are clear, and everyone is healthy. And when you try it again, they may not be favorable."
"It's a bumpy ride, with a great deal of adversity," said New Jersey Devils
goalie Martin Brodeur
, a three-time winner.
"You look back to last year," Bylsma said. "At any given moment in numerous different games, it could have all changed because of one player, one situation. You could say that over and over again about our 16 wins last season."
Think about it for a moment. One team will be left standing after the Flyers take on the Blackhawks. Despite earning 12 wins each, the Flyers and Hawks have to get four more to be crowned Stanley Cup champ. Heck, basic training for the military is easier -- an idea Wayne Gretzky
, who won the Cup four times, can agree with.
"You can't even describe how hard it is," Gretzky said. "You can't put it into words. The physical commitment you need to make for an eight-week period -- people can't really understand it until they go through it.
"Secondly, there's the mental grind. Being in professional sports, the hard part is keeping your emotions in check as best you can, not getting too high after a big game or not too low after losing a game. Teams that can avoid that normally win the Stanley Cup."
"It's never easy," Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood
said after the 2008 win. "Toughest trophy in sports to win; it lives for that name every year, that nickname. It was difficult, again. Pittsburgh is a great young team ... gave us all we could handle. Probably one of the most difficult series I've played in a while. They have a talented team. They held on right to the end again. They kept pushing us still."
In 2003, Bylsma was with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim as they battled to the Final only to fall to the New Jersey Devils
in seven games. In 2009, Bylsma went to Game 7, this time as the coach of the Penguins, and came away a champion and with a unique perspective on what it takes to emerge from the marathon with the Cup.
"It's really hard," Bylsma said. "I know 16 teams are going to try for it and 15 teams are going to go home disappointed. That doesn't mean that the 15 teams don't deserve it, didn't try, didn't do the right things. Only one team can come through that marathon and those games and those battles.
"I don't know if there's a good way to quantify it," Bylsma said. "I think when you win it -- I think you'll hear this story over and over and over again -- your guys say, 'I thought we were going to get there every year, we thought we were going to, and I didn't again for 19 years.' Every year you're going to hear that story."
And every year you also hear the tale about the players who never did get back to play for the Cup.
"It's tough," the recently retired Keith Tkachuk
said of seeing former teammates Doug Weight
and Dallas Drake
win Cups. "That first year (2000-01 with St. Louis), we made it to the conference finals and you just can't take anything for granted. You can't expect just to be there every year. It doesn't happen. I try to instill in some of the young players we have nowadays -- never take anything for granted. It didn't happen. We were close and that's the tough part."
"Obviously any hockey player you ask wants to win," Tkachuk added. "There's no question I wanted to win it. It didn't happen. I've seen guys around the league, Dougie and Dally, you're ecstatic for them. Not everybody gets a chance to carry the Cup."
"I was so young (20), my head was all over the place and I don't know if I really realized how big it was," said Chicago's Andrew Ladd
, who won with the Hurricanes in 2006. "After you win and you're looking back, it's like, 'Holy cow, I just won the Stanley Cup.' It really sinks in with how much it means and how hard it really is. There are not too many chances and you have to take advantage of it."
The subject of how hard it is to win the Stanley Cup was front and center at Thursday's media day with the subject high on the list with the Blackhawks having not win since 1961 and the Flyers having gone 35 years since their last Cup.
Detroit Red Wings
"I'll be here 10 years and have gotten close twice," Flyers' veteran winger Simon Gagne said. "Who knew if I would get back again.
"I've never crossed the line -- never gotten past Game 7," said Gagne, whose teams were ousted in the Eastern Conference Finals by the New Jersey Devils and Tampa Bay Lightning. "A lot of guys don't have a chance at it, maybe I'm an example of it. I'm 30-years-old, so to be here today … I will try my best."
"It's probably tough to realize how hard it is to get to this point," said teammate Kimmo Timonen, who's appearing in the Final for the first time in his career. "I can tell you that it's really hard because I played a lot of playoff games and exited (in) the first round. To make it this far, I can tell you it takes a lot of effort, a lot of luck too -- it's everything actually."
coach Mike Babcock, who coached Anaheim to the 2003 Stanley Cup Final, won the Cup with the Red Wings in 2008 and took the '09 Wings to Game 7 of the Final, said one of the keys for Detroit's past success has been experience.
"The big thing here is we just do what we do here," Babcock said as the 2010 playoffs opened. "Our guys have been through it a number of times. They understand. We have a veteran team. We've been through, like I said, the Final Four and then two Stanley Cup Finals the last couple of years. So we understand what it takes. In saying that, we're like everyone else -- we'll be a little nervous, which is a great thing. Without nerves, you don't get jacked up and you wouldn't be in the game."
But experience carries a price tag. The New York Islanders
won four straight Cups -- 1980-83 -- and competed for a fifth in 1984. But by that time, the Islanders, one of the greatest teams of all time, had about over a season's worth of playoff games under their belt and some very short summers in which to recover.
In 2008, the Red Wings played 22 playoff games. In '09, the total was 23, so Detroit players logged 45 playoff games in addition to 164 regular-season games over that two-season span. See what we mean about hard? Babcock does.
"I think there's no question about it," Babcock said. "Year after year after year, when teams get a lot longer to train, we went to the Final Four three years in a row, and obviously the Final two years in a row. That wears on you. I don't care who you are. You don't have the same time to recover. Guys are training full out, and you're still playing games. It makes a huge difference in, I think, the pop in your legs and your overall drive. It makes it hard."
"Guys are mentally exhausted," said Toronto Maple Leafs
GM Brian Burke
, who won the Cup with Anaheim in 2007. "They have survived four series and had to be at their peak for two months, and they have achieved their life dream. That requires a pause to refocus."
"It is extremely difficult," Bylsma said. "It is talented players and talented teams with good coaches and good organizations every year having a chance to win it, fighting tooth and nail to do it.
"You can do everything right, and that doesn't mean you're going to win. And putting your chips all in, a good plan, a good team, doesn't mean you're going to win."
Heck, even folks outside of hockey know how daunting the task can be.
"The Stanley Cup is the oldest trophy in professional sports. It's also very difficult to win. It takes four rounds in the playoffs -- 16 wins in as many as 28 games -- before an NHL player can skate and hold the Cup. That's a lot of work after a regular season."
Who said that? Why, United States President George W. Bush to the Red Wings in 2008.
"Winning this trophy takes a whole new level of sacrifice. It takes a group of players who can persevere through injuries and pain and setbacks and seven-game series. Above all, it takes a team that is willing to stick together, because nobody wins the Stanley Cup on their own."
Who said that? U.S. President Barack Obama to the Penguins in 2009.
After consecutive runs to the Final in '08 and '09, Babcock knows all about the blood, sweat and tears it takes to win. And he says one of the other biggest factors is something he can do absolutely nothing about except wear his lucky McGill University tie from time to time.
"You gotta get lucky," he said. "What I mean by that is you gotta get lucky with injuries. You can't get hurt.
"Second thing is, I believe, you need good goaltending and good specialty teams. And you've got to catch fire. Sometimes you're not great in the early rounds, but you gotta catch fire. And there's got to be a belief system, and you need role players to step up and your best players to be good.
"It's something you've got to do together as a team. But she's a battle."
But through all the demands, both physical and mental, being able to lift that Cup overhead is a moment that takes on a life of its own.
"I can't describe it," said Bret Hedican
, who finally won with the Carolina Hurricanes
in 2006. "The third time I hoped it was going to be the charm. I've been here three times. Both times were gut-wrenching. I've got the scars. But ... all that work, all that hard work, and our team winning, it all paid off."
"I played seven years without winning it," said Columbus Blue Jacket Samuel Pahlsson
, who won the Cup with Anaheim in 2007. "Lots of guys play a lot of games without even getting to the playoffs or through the first or second round. If you have a good team and you get a chance, you really have to take it.
"It's where every hockey player wants to go. They want to go to the Stanley Cup and win the Final. I don't know if you can describe it. It's an unbelievable feeling. You play a long time and you dream of that moment. You're just unbelievably happy."
"It's a great, great trophy," Babcock said. "It's the summer of your life when you get to touch that thing and get your name put on that thing and share it with your family. So it's a prize worth chasing. It's hard to win, which makes it so special."
"I loved everything about it, especially that first night, the opening game of the playoffs. It is special," Gretzky said. "Going into a city where you know it's a lion's den, like old Chicago Stadium, the Spectrum in Philly, Boston Garden, Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. Everything about the playoffs is really special and spectacular."