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NHL Playoff Preview, Sort Of

Ok, so it’s not a preview, it’s more like hockey ramblings. Regardless, the NHL Playoffs begin tonight. Here are five storylines that have my attention.

Full Disclosure: It takes one hand to count how many NHL games I watched this season from start to finish. My excuse? I’m a Flyers fan with no access to Flyer games because Comcast doesn’t like to share. It’s also not my fault the NHL broadcasts its games on an obscure sports channel instead of a mainstream network that garners national attention. Anyway, the point is, I follow the NHL all season without actually watching many games. Is that even possible? Yeah, I think so. If not, well, it’s the best I can do. Blame Comcast and the mindless marketing department at NHL headquarters.

Thankfully, the postseason means uninhibited access to the NHL. In other words, I shell out the extra $5 a month for Versus, I actually get to watch my beloved Flyers, and the sound of crashing boards, rubber pucks, and raucous arenas sing me to sleep each night on my couch. I don’t have the ammunition for a complete preview, but here’s what interests me…

Can the Flyers rally?
The Flyers stormed into the 2010-2011 season with the same momentum and urgency that propelled them to the Stanley Cup Finals last spring. Unfortunately, the Stanley Cup hangover eventually hit town, at the worst time nonetheless, and the defending Eastern Conference champions have struggled immensely since. Floundering at 14-18 after the All Star break, the Flyers surrendered the conference’s top seed and ultimately backed into the playoffs, losing 8 of their final 11 games. Were the Flyers simply bored and waiting for the playoffs? If so, can they flip the switch and replicate their 2010 playoff run?

If you trust the experts, the answer is no. The Buffalo Sabres are the popular pick to advance. Picking Buffalo makes sense, too. Chris Pronger is injured; his status for the series in doubt. Once again, Philadelphia will be entering the playoffs without a true #1 goaltender. The Sabres have been one of the NHL’s hottest teams since the break, beating Philadelphia twice in that time. The list goes on and on. Regardless, I’m not writing off the Flyers. Not yet, at least.

The Flyers are battle tested. Entering the series as the ignored, overrated underdog, even as a two seed, will galvanize the locker room. How often does the popular upset pick actually pull the upset anyway? These Flyers know how to win in the postseason. They’ve overcome adversity, injury, even a 0-3 hole in a best of seven series. Plus, Peter Laviolette is one of the best coaches in the game. (By the way, proof that you don’t need to watch every game to know what’s going; I just spelled “Laviolette” correctly without looking it up. BAM!)

Adding to my blind faith in the Flyers is my disdain for the Sabres, especially Head Coach Lindy Ruff. Seeing Ruff behind the bench brings back painful memories of Dominik Hasek’s dominance over the Flyers, Rob Ray’s antics, Matthew Barnaby’s face, Michael Peca’s leadership, and John LeClair resorting to scoring through the side of the net. What’s worse, the Flyers have won only one playoff series in four attempts against Ruff. Obviously, the Sabres left a scar.

Maybe I’m too emotionally invested. Maybe I’m afraid of the NHL playoffs without my Flyers. Or, maybe I trust that everything this team learned a year ago wasn’t a fluke: That Mike Richards is a great captain. That Claude Giroux is an offensive wizard. That Chris Pronger turns into Godzilla when the Stanley Cup is within reach. That grinders like Scottie Hartnell and Ville Leino will be the difference in close games. That all that experience will propel this team to elevate its play and finally bring that Stanley Cup to the CoreStates/First Union/Wachovia/Wells Fargo Center that Ed Snyder promised would arrive by 1997.

Will the Washington Capitals choke again?
I covered the annual playoff collapse of the Washington Capitals in more detail a year ago. Feel free to get yourself up to speed; https://4thanddone.com/alexander-the-goat.

As for this year, after earning the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the second straight season, the Capitals again enter the playoffs under heavy pressure. Their roster is loaded. They have the most talented player in the league in Alex Ovechkin, and they’re (surprisingly) one of the best defensive teams in the NHL. Obviously, the aforementioned collapses hang over the Capitals like storm clouds. The only way to dissipate those clouds is to win the Stanley Cup, or at the very least, reach the Finals.

I expect a deep playoff run by the Capitals. Unlike previous seasons, the Capitals weren’t the best team in the conference all season long. In fact, during an eight game losing streak in December, the Capitals looked like a broken team on the verge of total collapse. It wasn’t until the final month and a half of the season that Washington found its stride and overtook the top spot (thanks mostly to the Flyers’ collapse). Because of their midseason struggles, the Caps have already overcome obstacles and established their identity. More importantly, an improved defense and stellar goaltending give the Capitals an edge in the two areas that most often decide a playoff series. I would be shocked at another early exit.

Will Sidney Crosby return?
Imagine you’re a business owner with an out-of-this-world salesman on your staff. The guy is amazing. He’s talented, he attracts clients, and he’s the face of your company. Now imagine yourself going to the most important meeting of the year with your most important client. Except one thing is missing; your amazing salesman.

That’s the NHL without Sid-the-Kid. Love him or hate him, he’s the league’s most important player and the most marketable attraction the NHL has had in years. So, on the league’s biggest stage, one of two times a year the sport really matters, the NHL is severely shorthanded.

I’m not concerned with how Crosby’s absence may or may not impact the Pittsburgh Penguins. 1. I don’t even like the Penguins (or Crosby), and 2. Crosby means more to the NHL than he does to the Penguins. Quick, name one player from five different NHL teams. Not easy, is it? Crosby is the gimme. I guarantee if you ask 100 moderate sports fans that question, 100 will include Crosby. He’s the LeBron James of the NHL. Hockey needs Crosby to be relevant, to expand its market, and reach a younger generation that has grown up believing hockey isn’t even a major sport. While I don’t like Crosby, I love the NHL. Crosby’s health is vital to the continued, albeit painfully slow, resurgence of the NHL. I want Crosby in the 2011 playoffs. The NHL needs Crosby in the 2011 playoffs.

Can the Chicago Blackhawks repeat?
After struggling to find consistency all season, the Blackhawks backed their way into the playoffs despite losing to the Red Wings in the regular season finale. Now that they’re in, are the Blackhawks a legitimate threat, or did Dallas’ loss to Minnesota just delay the inevitable?

As the Boston Celtics are proving right now, changing the core of a title team is not a good idea. I understand the Blackhawks made changes based on financial concerns, but still. Within weeks of hoisting the Stanley Cup, Chicago traded away a handful of players, including playoff hero Dustin Byfuglien, to the Atlanta Thrashers. If you watched the 2010 playoffs, you know Byfuglien was the heart and soul of the Blackhawks. A few months later, Chicago said “no thanks” to retaining their starting goaltender, Antti Niemi. Apparently, blowing up a team after a championship doesn’t improve the likelihood of a repeat. Who knew? Now the Blackhawks face the NHL’s best team in the opening round of the playoffs. I expect Chicago’s quest to repeat to last about a week.

Can the NHL Playoffs compete with the superstars of the NBA Playoffs?
Not a chance. It’s not even a fair fight. The NBA is too big right now. On a national scale, a TV viewer may catch up to three commercials a night featuring an NBA superstar. Conversely, one may be lucky to see a commercial featuring an NHL star twice a month. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant; there’s too many NBA superstars to name. Only Crosby and Ovechkin have a national audience in the NHL. Why the disparity? Exposure. The NBA has multiple weekly national broadcasts on major networks; ABC, TNT, ESPN. The NHL airs on Versus and occasionally broadcasts a game on NBC at noon on Saturday or Sunday.

Versus and NBC are now both owned by Comcast. Flyers owner Ed Snyder (chairmen of Comcast Spectacor) wants the NHL exclusively on those channels. In other words, he doesn’t want ESPN to get the rights to broadcast the NHL. Unfortunately, what’s best for Snyder isn’t best for the NHL.

Like it or not, ESPN controls the sports programming in this country. It’s the first place people look when they want to watch sports. To take its league to the next level, the NHL needs to be seen on a larger national stage. Versus isn’t even on DirecTV’s basic cable package. DirecTV has over 19 million subscribers, the second largest cable provider in the country. You do the math.

If the NHL was smart, it would cut a deal for a weekly hockey night on ESPN. Just an idea, but maybe put the sport in the national spotlight more than twice a year? I know, crazy, right? Signing with ESPN not only elevates the significance of NHL games, but broadens hockey’s exposure on a daily basis as well.

Currently, ESPN has no nightly hockey show, nor does it devote significant attention to hockey on Sportscenter. ESPN isn’t invested in hockey, so, right or wrong, the network doesn’t go to great lengths to market the sport. By granting ESPN at least one signature game a week, the NHL would reap the benefits of more Sportscenter coverage and NHL devoted programming on the nation’s premier sports network. At that point, it would then be in ESPN’s interest to promote the NHL. But that only happens if the NHL gets smart and realizes Versus cannot, and will not take the NHL back to where it once was. Versus has successfully kick-started hockey’s resurgence after the lockout, but the NHL has gone as far as it can with Versus.

The NBA has so many superstars because ESPN, the media, and other major outlets tell us they’re superstars. The NHL just needs a national stage to establish its own stars. ESPN is that stage. Once there, the lights go on and the rest is history.

Enjoy the playoffs, and Mike Emrick, too. There’s no better announcer in sports.

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