Comments on the 2014 Playoffs
Over the past couple of years, I've dedicated individual pages to both the NHL and NBA playoffs and finals. I broke down power plays/penalty minutes/free throw advantages/etc. in part to show the manipulation within both leagues. By now, I think many fans of this site get the idea. So call me lazy, but I'm just not going to do that again. Plus, I've been working with Lance Williams (co-author of the book Game of Shadows about Barry Bonds and BALCO) on an article about a fixed MLB game over the past year which is in its final stages prior to publication as well as working on pieces for Sports On Earth.
That doesn't mean everything is a-ok in both leagues' playoff seasons.
Normally at this time of year, the talk of the NHL is the number of overtime games and how "there's nothing as exciting as playoff overtime hockey." In fact, the first round saw 14 games go into OT. But that's not the story this year. No, this is the year of the comeback, especially those of the 2-goal (or more) variety. In 11 of the 57 games (19.3%) played thus far (as of May 6th), the winning team has erased a 2-goal or more deficit. "Oh, it's just playoff hockey," fans will say. Right. Never mind that the percentage of games with such a comeback is nearly twice that of the regular season. It's just an anomaly.
Speaking of comebacks, one would be remiss not to mention the LA Kings comeback over the San Jose Sharks. Down three games to none, the Kings managed to win the final four games of the series, a feat which has only be accomplished three other times in NHL history. Of course, it didn't happen without controversy:
The question to ask yourself is: who did the NHL prefer advance to the next round to face the Anaheim Ducks? The Sharks or the media darling (and still financially shaky) Kings?
Finally, there is the alleged "French referee conspiracy."
Basically, the conspiracy is that French Canadian referees favor the Montreal Canadiens, especially on their home ice. This, some would say, was evident in their playoff series vs. the Tampa Bay Lightning which they swept 4-0. Now the Canadiens sit up 2-1 over the President Cup winning Boston Bruins. I fully expect to see the Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Finals. Not necessarily because of this "conspiracy" but because of another one: namely the $5.2 billion dollar deal the NHL cut with Rogers Broadcasting for the rights to Hockey Night in Canada. It's the largest deal in league history. The Canadiens themselves just inked a new 12-year broadcast deal with RDS which included naming rights to their arena. I think perhaps it's now time for the Stanley Cup to come "home" and reinvigorate Canadian viewers. Follow the money...
The NHL is learning more of the NBA's tricks with each passing season: all four Round Two playoff series in the NHL was guaranteed to go at least six games. In the end, three of the four went the full seven: NYR-PIT, BOS-MON, and LA-ANA. That's a very good thing for the NHL and its broadcast partners, the NBC Sports Networks.
This will leave the Conference Championships with two TV friendly match-ups featuring perhaps the league's four top media markets: LA-CHI and NYR-MON. That's the two most recent Cup winners facing off in one series along with two of the hallowed "Original 6" teams in the other. As mentioned previously, I still foresee the Canadiens in the Finals, if not winning it all. Which team is a better story at this point?
The Rangers have now advanced to the Finals, thanks in part to the injury of Canadiens goalie Carey Price who left Game 1 after an illegal (and unpenalized) hit. This killed my "conspiracy prediction" of the Canadiens reaching the Finals, yet at the same time, another conspiracy was born. Thanks to former player turned NBC commentator Jeremy Roenick, we know now the networks wants a Rangers-Blackhawks Finals. With the Blackhawks winning 2-1 in Game 6 (which, if the score holds, will lead to a Game 7 in Chicago), perhaps Roenicks let something slip he shouldn't have.
Well, NBC got half of what they wanted: the New York Rangers made the Finals. The Blackhawks, however, couldn't over come the comeback Kings (which has been the running theme of this year's playoffs), putting LA in the Finals. That only gives NBC/NHL a New York v. Los Angeles match-up, something I'd guess every league/media outlet would love as it pits the two largest media markets against each other. As for who the league might want to win, I doubt it really matters as long as the Finals go at least six games, all will be well.
Ratings for the LA-NY Finals may have been down from last year's Boston-Chicago match-up, but NBC was still #1 in the nation thanks to Game 1. The Finals have also been quite good business for both the Kings and the Rangers. Game 1 for LA was a financial windfall, resulting in team records for ticket sales and merchandise sold. And though the Rangers may be down 0-2 (thanks to a Saturday night, double OT loss), it hasn't hurt business in NY either as ticket sales for Game 3 were reported as "record setting."
Despite the Cup ending up 4-1 in favor of the Kings, the NHL got their money's worth for the shortened Finals (which, coincidentally, ended just prior to the start of the World Cup). A pair of double OT games, a very hype-able LA v. NY match-up (despite the fact that the Rangers didn't deserve to be there), and solid ratings/ticket sales. Not too shabby for a near sweep.