The NHL's regular season schedule is 82 games. While there are plenty of ups and downs on the race to the finish line, the real battle starts immediately afterwards.
Of the four major North American sports leagues, the Stanley Cup playoffs are arguably the most intense of the postseason offerings. It's not hard to understand how the NHL corners the market in "entertainment factor".
No matter how much playoff hockey you watch, the players' experience is incredibly different from what the fans see.
"Everybody has to buy in and there's so many ups and downs through the season that when you get to the playoffs, it's an accomplishment to get there," said Predators forward Austin Watson. "Then again it starts new work. You're working towards the same goal you started the year with, but you accomplished the first half of it. The camaraderie and togetherness of everybody moving forward with one goal is pretty incredible."
While scanning the ice at practice, or listening to the players banter around the dressing room, well-built teams all exude qualities of deep friendships built through their on-ice trials and tribulations.
Brotherhood aside, it's not the only factor that goes into what makes playoff competition so great.
"Just the compete level from both teams," noted forward Ryan Johansen. "There's 40 guys that throw on a jersey each game day. When the puck drops, it's an all-out war. All the little battles. Who can make the big plays? I'm just looking forward to facing off against each and every guy that we end up going up against. Hopefully, further in the playoffs.
"It really gets noticed when players can raise their game to another level and be successful in the postseason. That's what every player looks forward to: when they're playing for the Cup, everyone wants to be the guy that's making a big impact for their team. Just the compete level, it's so exciting each and every shift. And overtime, if there's things like that. You see the emotion and passion that goes into the game. It's the best time of the year."
It's hard to imagine comparing the sport of hockey to being an "all-out war", but in the playoffs that might not be too far of a stretch. Some of the greatest best-of-seven series have been a result of devastating hits and retaliation calls being answered by the opposition - whether it came from head-cracking hits knocking star players out of a game or all-out line brawls that are still vividly recalled nearly 20 years later.
The NHL may have been the one league that was truly crafted out of blood, sweat and tears.
"You play a season of 82 games. It's a long year," goaltender Carter Hutton said. "It's physically exhausting. At these points in the year, teams that finish are almost ready for a break, but for teams that get in it's like 'now, the rest is history.' You have to really crank it up. Just to see what guys do to put their bodies on the line and the things that they sacrifice to play for a Cup and to get there? It's definitely what I think makes this sport amazing."
One thing that never ceases to amaze, though, is the rabidness of fans for the teams that remain once the regular season ends. Not to discount the fan support during the regular season, but playoff hockey will always be a different beast.
Some players feed off the playoff intensity and battles between their counterparts, but it's impossible to underestimate the level of excitement generated in the stands. I'd venture to guess that most players feel the same way.
"It's just another notch up," said forward Eric Nystrom. "You come into a building and even when you just finish a check into the corner, the place goes nuts. The building, atmosphere and energy are night and day difference. For me, that's the most exciting thing.
"You feed off of it. It is a little intimidating when you come into Bridgestone and the whole place is gold and they're going crazy. As a visiting player, you kind of feed off it as well, but there's nothing like being in your home building in the playoffs."
Although fans may never experience the same emotions of those who have earned the right to play for the Stanley Cup, their insight says it all: it's intense and it's exhausting, but it's exhilarating.
Just look through the stands after a game-seven-clinching goal that sends one team to the next round and the other to a long summer. The range of emotions displayed on the ice are mirrored by the fans, who are just as emotionally invested in the outcome.
15 teams and their fans will finish the season exasperated, yearning for another chance.
Only one team will earn the right to celebrate. And it's most definitely earned.