Helene Elliot of the Los Angeles Times mentioned last night, after the Los Angeles Kings had slayed the Vancouver Canucks in Game 5 of their Western Conference Quarterfinal, that Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinal between the Kings and St. Louis Blues – the only conference semifinal match-up already determined – could start Friday. As some have pointed out, there’s an equal chance that said series could start on Saturday, as Scottrade Center is booked for Van Halen on Sunday, which would split up a series that will already have to deal with two basketball tenants when it gets out west a bit too early.
Still, if it starts on Saturday, one would think that the two markets justify an NBC appearance. Even if the Rangers make it to round two, a second round matchup against Florida or New Jersey doesn’t seem most appealing. Either way, the Flyers taking on the Capitals or Bruins would almost definitely be the more attractive Eastern Conference series, and usually NBC will show a series from both conferences once we hit round two.
So imagine, this Saturday on NBC: “Hey America, two teams you’ve never seen before!”
Now this isn’t entirely fair to them, since the Blues got a regional slot on Hockey Day in America, but before that, neither had appeared on NBC since 2007, back when they still did regional scheduling each week. In fact, the two teams actually played each other on NBC in January of 2007. Since then, the Kings appeared once in April of that year, and neither club has sniffed NBC afterwards. Not that they necessarily deserved to, but it remains a bit of a bugaboo for the league: building a national footprint west of Chicago.
You’ll hear a lot of people turning their noses up at the potential for a Kings-Blues and – even worse – Predators/Coyotes second round. Even a Chicago comeback to save things for the league would still get shot down a bit. The NHL hasn’t had a second round without Detroit since 2006, and they don’t want ratings to go back to where they were when that happened. That said, I don’t think there’s much to fear here, or at least not much to fear any more than a Panthers/Senators series, which remains a very viable possibility.
Besides, it’s probably not even worse for American television than last year’s crop. You had a popular mid-western team (Detroit) against a middling, big-market, west coast team (San Jose), while the Predators played a team with no impact on American ratings. This year, you’ll get – at worst – a popular mid-western team (the Blues, who are setting massive ratings records), against a middling, big-market, west coast team (Los Angeles), and the Predators taking on a club that, while weak, will still make more of a mark on US television than a Canadian team in Phoenix. Getting Chicago in would be gravy, but it’s far from a disaster.
Last year’s Canucks/Predators series average a fairly weak 610,000 viewers over six games on VERSUS. That was with Nashville – a small, southern American market – against a team whose viewership didn’t count in US ratings. Even more damning, the Nashville market was only exclusive to VERSUS for about half the series. This year, NBCSN and CNBC (along with NBC) get exclusivity starting with the second round. Add a second American market that you hope will finally believe a little in it’s team winning their first playoff series in decades, and you’re almost guaranteed to beat that number. Again, if Chicago shows up, that number gets crushed even more.
Los Angeles-St. Louis will be facing a slightly more difficult hill to climb in a Detroit-San Jose series that went seven games last year. Again, NBC Sports Network has the advantage of full exclusivity, whereas VERSUS had only two games a series. Red Wings/Sharks averaged 1.03 million viewers over six games on VERSUS, with Game 2 drawing a 1.6 overnight rating on NBC. While the national network viewers may not take to Los Angeles and St. Louis, you have to build an audience for these teams somewhere. I think – with full exclusivity and huge support in St. Louis – a Blues/Kings series could top that. It may not hit the dizzying highs of the 1.6 million viewers for Game 5 of Red Wings/Sharks, but I believe if the series goes long, there shouldn’t be too big a problem.
Trust me, there’ll be a lot of complaining over nothing here. What really needs to be worried about is finding a way to convince people to tune into a Florida/Ottawa series, or a potential Philadelphia-Ottawa and New Jersey-Washington second round in the East. Solve that problem later, the Western Conference will be just fine. Even if the numbers aren’t fantastic, like I said, you must start building somewhere. That Detroit team ain’t gettin’ any younger.