Making the playoffs is everything.
Money (lots of money). Prestige. Bragging rights. Maybe even the Stanley Cup.
You'd be surprised how making the playoffs can rescue even the most moribund franchises from fan apathy and turn them into raging hockey markets overnight (ie. Tampa Bay, Carolina).
But the magic from one post-season visit doesn't last long. Just look at the Atlanta Thrashers. They gambled prospects and draft choices (including future all-star Braydon Coburn) for veterans like Keith Tkachuk in order to sneak in last year but now find themselves back in a malaise that has surrounded the franchise since its inception.
The real trick is getting there year after year, and in today's climate of parity, that is going to be much harder in the years ahead. Despite that, a handful of teams have managed to cultivate a winning tradition in the regular season. Others have wallowed in their own misery, creating a "loser" atmosphere that is hard to shake.
Here's a quick chart showing the leaders in both categories.