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April 6, 2006
  

Ruffling the Peacock's Feathers
The playoff picture in the Western Conference could be giving NBC Sports some serious headaches.
 

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- Ah, the stretch run. 

The finale to a thrilling regular season that's seen end-to-end offense, miraculous reversals of fortune, several rookie sensations, and at least one assistant coach in Phoenix who may have earned himself a guest spot on "The Sopranos."

But alas, all good things must come to an end.

The top eight in the Wales Conference appear solidified as of this writing, unless Tampa Bay stumbles in its two remaining games against the Thrashers, or Carolina decides it would rather play Atlanta in the first round and pummels the Bolts in their home-and-home later this month. 

This is, of course, is contingent on either Atlanta or Toronto playing consistent hockey for the rest of the regular season, which is a bit like asking Mischa Barton of "The O.C." to eat a 24-ounce prime rib.

In the Campbell, it's a much better race: six teams for four playoff slots. I've been carrying the baton in the "Giguere Is a Fraud" parade, so it's with uncommon humility that I credit the kid with Anaheim's amazing run in the second half (along with nods to Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer, naturally). 

Tossing out the 18-shot performance against the Kings this week, the Ducks' defense has given up an average of 29.8 shots on goal in eight of the team's last nine wins. That would rank 15th overall in the NHL as a season average. The Ducks giving up a ton of shots, and Giguere finding a way to win? Gee, when have we seen this before?

Colorado, Edmonton, San Jose, Vancouver and Los Angeles are also in the Campbell playoff hunt. How it all plays out could have a large impact on one of the major storylines of this post-lockout postseason: American television. 

Forget OLN for a moment, if you haven't already. The training wheels are still on, but you have to like the way they're pedaling. The bottom line is that OLN is an investment: if Comcast comes through on its threat to challenge ESPN with a major cable sports network, then the NHL should stay. If that's not in the cards, maybe Gary Bettman gets on his knees and starts crawling back to Bristol. 

No, the real issue is NBC. It will provide coverage of the Conference Quarterfinals on April 22, 23, 29 and 30; the Conference Semifinals, May 6, 7, 13 and 14; the Conference Finals on May 20; and Games 3-7 of the Stanley Cup Final in primetime. 

(A lot has been made of Games 1 and 2 being on cable television. Calm down: from a coverage and promotional standpoint, it's perfect. When NBC picks up the action, storylines and major players will have been well-established, making it an easier sell to those mythical "casual" fans.)

NBC has pretty much limited its coverage to major markets thus far, featuring at least one of these teams in nearly every match-up: New York, Philadelphia, Colorado, Los Angeles, Detroit or Chicago. 

The nightmare scenario for NBC? Having Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver all qualify for the Campbell Conference postseason. That's a three-in-eight chance a Canadian franchise makes the Stanley Cup Finals, which means we could see headlines like this one from the 2004 Tampa Bay/Calgary SCF:

"Stanley Cup Ratings On ABC Lowest Since Move To Broadcast" – Street and Smith's Sports Business Daily.

Ouch! Basically, NBC Sports in now the biggest cheerleader for the Rangers and Flyers, almost putting Bill Clement and Neil Smith to shame (almost). 

Assuming one of those teams can make it out of the Wales, it assures at least a respectable primetime number if the foil is from Alberta or British Columbia. 

Any of the other Wales Conference playoff teams against one of the Western Canadian franchises will make reruns of "Joey" look like the finale of "M*A*S*H."

I report the above out of necessity. In truth, the Calgary/Tampa Bay final was great hockey, both on the ice and in the storytelling. 

Personally, I couldn't care less about the ratings, or lack thereof, so long as this first postseason with the reconfigured rules improves what's already the greatest annual tournament in professional sports.

But, like you, I face the slings and arrows of non-fans and colleagues who are all too ready to try and shove the NHL back into the grave just as the league figures out how to break through the dirt. 

An Ottawa/Calgary final on broadcast television would be all the ammunition they'd need. 

RANDOM THOUGHTS

I received a few off-the-record comments about last week's
Oklahoma City piece. One of the most interesting notes was from an NHL employee who inferred that the league's flirtation with Las Vegas could be significantly muted thanks to Mr. Tocchet, Mrs. Jones, and their recent legal entanglement. Who knew that along with the Super Bowl, they may have been gambling on the future of the league as well...

...A wiser man then I may be able to figure out the significance of this, but what does it say about the NHL's marketing scheme when Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals (16,569) have a higher average road attendance than the Ottawa Senators (16,509), despite the fact that the Sens play more games at Montreal (No. 1 in home attendance) and Toronto (No. 6) than in Florida and Carolina...

...Interesting mix of stars for the NHL's "My Stanley Cup" ad campaign debuting during this weekend's game. Henrik Lundqvist and Robert Esche, but no Marty Brodeur? Rob Brind'Amour instead of Eric Staal? Anson Carter and Mike Grier, but no Jarome Iginla? Weird.

And whichever PR flack put the following words in Martin St. Louis's mouth deserves a gold star from the International Equine Feces Association: "The NHL has always done a great job in depicting the excitement of our game."

My only question about the campaign: Will any of the players be featured as metrosexual samurai like we saw in the first wave of "My NHL" ads? ...

...Finally, say a prayer for the family of Jeff Lamana, who died last weekend at 32-years old after a two-year battle with cancer. His site, flyersphans.com, remains one of the best hockey boards on the web. You won't find a more dedicated fan; he'll be missed.

 


Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com and the Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.
 

 

 

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