The Falconer over at Bird Watchers Anonymous has a fine article this morning which delves into the question of playoff success, and how that appears to be a strong driver in building strong NHL markets.
Here's what I wrote back in 2007 when Nashville was being written off as a hockey market, because fans didn't sell out the building when the Predators had an elite regular season team that lost in the 1st round to San Jose:
So much of the discussion in sports media over the last several years has been that "the regular season doesn't matter, only championships do." We see captains refusing to hoist the Campbell Bowl or Prince of Wales Trophy, and generally treating the President's Cup like it was Aunt Millie's ancient fruit cake getting passed around the table. When you consistently hammer home that message, why should anyone be surprised that support wasn't surging just because the team was in 1st place back in December? In my mind, professional sports in general needs to reconsider that message, as the bread-and-butter of their business is the regular season - you shouldn't tell folks that they're paying thousands of dollars to see games that don't really matter.
There is still talk of a Presidents Trophy "curse", which is positively laughable. Teams that win the Presidents Trophy for the best regular season record do far better in the playoffs than any other qualifying position; just because they don't win all the time doesn't mean the winner is "cursed". It certainly didn't hurt Detroit last year.
It seems to me that there are two factors at work here; first, the predominant sports culture that stresses playoff success above all else, with the frequent connotation that the regular season is meaningless, and secondly, the fact that the playoff "bandwagon effect" is what really brings the corporate sponsors on board, as they follow the attention span of the casual fan.
Even if they get eliminated over the next few days, the Sharks and Capitals should proudly raise division championship banners to the rafters next fall, and celebrate individual achievements like Alexander Ovechkin's Rocket Richard Trophy. If all you're willing to celebrate is a Stanley Cup championship, then you're just building decades of disappointment into your plan. That doesn't sound like a good way to sell hockey.