This playoff season, the NHL has been tracking up, up, up. Revenues for the NHL are up to $3 billion a season, its television ratings with broadcast partner NBC are at an all-time high, and ESPN is even taking the time to mention hockey on its flagship news program SportsCenter (when not discussing the looming NFL draft and how the New York Jets projected sixth round draft choice may impact the relationship between Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow).
The league could ask for little more. With 45 playoff games in the books, 14 have reached overtime. That’s 31 percent, similar to last year’s phenominal run wherein 20 of the first 63 playoff games reached overtime. These numbers are slightly askew as normally NHL games achieve overtime less than 25 percent of the time, but so what?
Sudden-death, overtime playoff hockey is what the NHL hopes for. There is nothing more exciting or newsworthy.
Except, perhaps for a dramatic Game 7, and three of those are lined up already in the first round in the East. Two of these three Game Sevens feature “Original 6” franchises, the New York Rangers and last year’s champion Boston Bruins. In the other, the Florida Panthers hope to keep their dreams alive against a big market team in the New Jersey Devils.
Meanwhile in the West, the NHL is guaranteed to have a fresh face in the Stanley Cup Finals. Two of the teams–the Phoenix Coyotes and Nashville Predators–have never played in a Finals. As for the St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings, neither franchise has seen the Finals in decades.
What more could the NHL want?
Well, that may just be the problem. Is this just all too good to be true?
Two members of the number one seeded New York Rangers have already questioned the intentions of the NHL itself, basically calling out the league for attempting to manipulate its own outcomes.
The first instance came when head coach John Tortorella questioned the legitimacy of the penalites called in the Winter Classic played against the Philadelphia Flyers. Tortorella said at the time, “I’m not sure if NBC got together with the refs and wanted to turn this into an overtime game. I’m not sure if they had meetings about that or what.”
Now, just this past Monday, Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist went on a post-game rant questioning the ruling of an apparently kicked-in goal allowed by referees even after examining the instant replay. Lundqvist mirrored Tortotella’s past comments saying, “Someone wanted them back in the game, for sure.”
Were they correct in their conspiratorial-like assessments? No one else in the sports media realm is asking follow up questions, so who knows?
But there are questions worth asking in regards to these playoffs.
The NHL certainly wants one of its teams to succeed: the Phoenix Coyotes. Why? Because the league would like to have true owners for the team rather than the league running the franchise. Could this be why the Coyotes have had their recent post-season success after decades of futility? Is it merely a sales pitch? An enticement to get someone on board to run what’s suddenly a successful franchise?
It also seems odd that since NHL lockout cancelled the 2004-05 season and playoffs, champions–with the sole exception of the Detroit Red Wings–have been of two sorts: either well-established, but suffering franchises (Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, and Boston Bruins) or relative “newbies” in need of fans (Carolina Hurricanes and Anaheim Ducks). Note with the exception of the Bruins, these teams either didn’t make this year’s playoffs or were quickly eliminated.
This season’s playoffs seem to be setting up a similar scenario for the league to exploit, especially when looking at the four remaining teams in the West. Should both the Rangers and Bruins survive their Game Sevens here in the first round, a match-up between a big market team and a relative (or complete) newcomer is nearly assured for the Finals. Exactly what the NHL and NBC would want.
Is this all merely a coincidence or has the NHL done exactly what members of the Rangers have hinted at and fixed their own games to get the best possible result? It may sound farfetched, but given that $3 billion is at stake, would you leave it all up to chance? Especially when you have both the means and motive to control what appears uncontrollable?