It’s always been the greatest game nobody watches, better even to these eyes than that other great game nobody watches — soccer. But now, thanks to Sidney Crosby and the young and exciting team from Pittsburgh, there’s interest and buzz and — if you can believe it — a growing TV audience.
With the high-flying Detroit Red Wings coming out of the rugged Western Conference, the NHL has everything it had been hoping for ever since it canceled an entire season and almost committed labor-relations suicide three years ago.
There's no small market teams in this final — the last three Cup runner-ups were from Canada, eh — and it's safe to say this is the most-anticipated final since Messier's Rangers were ending their drought, prompting Sports Illustrated to publish a cover with the now almost unthinkable words 'Why the NHL's Hot and the NBA's Not'.
The Red Wings are America’s hockey royalty, a powerhouse team that plays the game the way it should be played. They’re not exactly the New York Yankees of the sport — that’s Montreal’s distinction. They’re more like the Boston Red Sox, a team that the game’s true fans love, a team that’s on top of the sport.
By major-sport standards, the NHL still isn’t a huge draw, and the game’s critics will use that to hammer it as they always do. But NBC — a partner in NBCSports.com — and the NHL aren’t looking for double-digit ratings. They’re looking for growth.
And the numbers so far this spring say the sport is growing, and growing fast. Game 2 of the Penguins-Philadelphia Flyers Eastern Conference finals drew a 1.7 rating and more than 2 million viewers — the biggest audience ever to watch a show on Versus. The Penguins' clincher in the series also drew a 1.7 rating. That’s small, but it’s up 11 percent from the best draw last year, and NBC was encouraged enough to recently extend its contract with the NHL.
Sure, the ratings are still small, but the growth curve is impressive. If the Stanley Cup finals get as much as a 3 on NBC, it will be an enormous boost to the sport. And that’s hardly out of the question. On New Year’s Day, the NHL put on a game between the Buffalo Sabres and the Penguins in the Buffalo Bills’ NFL open-air outdoor stadium. It was played in a snowstorm and it pulled a 2.6 in the Nielsens. That was the NHL’s highest rating in more than 10 years. So, yeah, a 3 or better is very much in play for the Stanley Cup finals, and that would be more than tripling last year’s ratings.
There's an old saying that you have to walk before you can run. For the NHL, it’s more like learning to crawl before it can walk. What’s important isn’t the rating, but the growth, and the NHL, which has wisely also made a huge play to capture fans via its impressive web site, is growing.
PHT: After the Rangers and Bruins face off in Game 3 of their series (7:30 p.m. ET; Live Extra, NBCSN), the Kings and Sharks play (10 ET; Live Extra, NBCSN) Game 4 of theirs.
With the New York Rangers down two games in their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Boston Bruins, tonight’s Game 3 is a must-win. Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg could possibly return for the game.
Hyping the Stanley Cup
May 20: Mad Dog goes on an NHL rant and picks the Red Wings to beat the Penguins in seven games.
Video: NHL from NBC Sports
Highlights: Red Wings top Blackhawks in Game 3
The Detroit Red Wings returned home tied at one in their Western Conference semifinals series with the Chicago Blackhawks. After a physical, but scoreless first period that was dominated by the Blackhawks, the Red Wings jumped out to a two goal lead by scoring twice in 31 seconds. Detroit ended up winning the game 3-1 and now have a 2-1 lead in the series.
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