Commentary

Do you believe in near-acles?

After repeated postseason breakdowns, one of these clubs could finally break the curse

Updated: March 30, 2011, 4:19 PM ET
By Craig Button | Special to ESPN The Magazine

Luongo-Thornton-OvechkinGetty ImagesThe Canucks, Sharks and Caps could put playoff failures behind them this season.

Note: This story appears in the April 4 edition of ESPN The Magazine.

Close doesn't cut it when it comes to pursuing the Stanley Cup. In the postlockout years, a number of elite regular-season squads disappeared during the playoffs, prolonging championship droughts. Four Cup-hungry franchises now sit near the top of the league. Same old song? Not necessarily. A handful of changes and a winter's worth of evidence suggest that one from this quartet could finish the postseason whistling a champion's tune. Or not.

Vancouver Canucks

Last Stanley Cup: Never won
(No. 1 in the West)

Hope! The team has balance. Daniel and Henrik Sedin are the NHL's top point-producing linemates, and two-way star Ryan Kesler adds scoring depth to pair with a premier D (2.22 goals allowed per game). Rookie stopper Cory Schneider (.930 save percentage) even serves as a solid backup plan should lead keeper Roberto Luongo crumble again.

Nope ... The 82-game meat grinder has tenderized the defensive corps. Kevin Bieksa (foot) and Alexander Edler (back surgery) are sidelined and Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard sustained concussions this season. Injuries could keep Vancouver in traction through another season.

Philadelphia Flyers

Last Stanley Cup: 1975
(No. 1 in the East)

Hope! Once Chris Pronger's busted hand has healed, the D corps will be solid all the way down to the more-than-capable third pairing of Andrej Meszaros and Sean O'Donnell. Between its scoring chops, grinding game and best back line in the East, Philly has all that's needed to hoist the hardware -- especially after being hardened by last season's Finals fall.

Nope ... To capture the Cup a team needs a goalie who can steal games. Sergei Bobrovsky has been solid but is lacking in playoff experience, and Brian Boucher is no Bernie Parent. If Philly comes up short again, everyone will look to the crease.

San Jose Sharks

Last Stanley Cup: Never won
(No. 3 in the West)

Hope! San Jose always performs to its lethal nickname from fall to spring (average of 108 points in the past six seasons) only to go toothless in the playoffs. This season a second trio of slick forwards -- Devin Setoguchi (20 goals), Joe Pavelski (18) and Calder Trophy candidate Logan Couture (30) -- should alleviate demands on the Big Three of Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley. Plus new G Antti Niemi knows what it takes to win it all.

Nope ... Defense wins championships, right? While the Sharks have one of the league's best blueliners in Dan Boyle, their D is puddle deep. With few solutions, the season may end with a gut punch again.

Washington Capitals

Last Stanley Cup: Never won
(No. 2 in the East)

Hope! The Caps are pros at squandering regular-season success, usually at the hands of the rival Pens (they're 1-7 in postseason series since 1991). A newfound dedication to D should help them grind out one-goal games in the playoffs. Add that to the talents of Alex Ovechkin and his supporting cast and the Caps seem primed to finally overcome three straight seasons of seven-game short circuits.

Nope ... Though the O is clicking, team scoring has slipped. A similar fate led to last season's early fall. DC's trio of keepers should be fine, but if Mike Green doesn't return, the defense will be reliant on young Karl Alzner and John Carlson.

Craig Button contributes regularly to ESPN Insider. Since 1988, Button has worked in the NHL as a scout and later as director of scouting with the Minnesota North Stars, becoming director of player personnel after the franchise relocated to Dallas. He later served as vice president and general manager of the Calgary Flames. He currently works as an analyst for the NHL Network.

Craig Button contributes regularly to ESPN Insider. Since 1988, Button has worked in the NHL as a scout and later as director of scouting with the Minnesota North Stars, becoming director of player personnel after the franchise relocated to Dallas. He later served as vice president and general manager of the Calgary Flames. He currently works as an analyst for the NHL Network.