Excuse NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, COO John Collins and other puck sport executives if they secretly extended high fives over the performances of the Tampa Bay Lightning Saturday night and Minnesota Wild on Sunday evening.
Original Six members, the New York Rangers and the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, stumbled with losses to the Atlanta Thrashers on Thursday and Detroit Red Wings that put their playoff fates in the skates and sticks of Tampa and Minnesota.
After the Broadway Blue Shirts took care of business against Hudson River rivals New Jersey Devils with a 5-2 win on Saturday afternoon, the Rangers needed Tampa to topple Carolina or cede the eighth Eastern Conference playoff slot (for a second straight year) to the Hurricanes. Fortunately for the players, their fans and officials at MSG Network, Tampa triumphed 6-2 to put the Rangers in the postseason, while leaving Hurricane howlers and FS Carolina execs spinning over opening-round playoff telecasts and GRPs lost.
Similarly, the Blackhawks received help to get a chance to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup again. Needing only a point in the early Sunday window, Chicago fell 4-3 to Detroit. That paved the way for the Dallas Stars to grab the eighth spot out West. However, Minnesota scored an empty-netter to officially shoot down the Stars 5-3 on NHL Network early on Sunday evening. As such, FS Southwest’s loss is Comcast SportsNet Chicago’s gain with playoff action.
How long Chicago and New York will stick around is another matter - their rewards for backing into the postseason are best-of-seven engagements with the league’s top two clubs point-wise, the Vancouver Canucks (115) and Washington Capitals (107).
Whether they would cop to it or not, NHL executives have to be happy with the way things turned out - and will be even more elated if the Nielsen-challenged Canucks flame out. The longer big market clubs stick around the stronger ratings figure to be - a key selling point as the NHL’s contracts with Comcast linemates NBC and Versus conclude at the end of the playoffs in June. Whether ESPN and/or others also hop over the boards to skate with offers should make for fascinating scorekeeping of its own.