As I type this, we're just two hours away from the return of NBC's Game of the Week. The Western Conference-leading Chicago Blackhawks will host their Original Six rivals, the Detroit Red Wings, in a Central division showdown. But although much will be made of the various stories on the ice, perhaps the biggest story is an off-ice one. A very important question will be answered: can the NHL carry over some momentum from last Sunday's gold medal match between the US and Canada? Today's game will perhaps be the biggest test: it features stars from both the US & Canadian teams, as well as Canada's gold-medal winning head coach, exactly one week to the day on the same network that hosted the record-setting game.
Last Sunday's game drew nearly 28 million viewers on the Peacock, beating out television heavyweights in sports (last year's World Series, featuring the defending champion Phillies against baseball's highest-drawing team, the New York Yankees, peaked at 22.8 million viewers for Game 4; it also beat out the Daytona 500, the NBA Finals, and more) and entertainment (the Grammys drew almost 2 million viewers less as well). During last week's game, which was up 61% from 2002's US-Canada gold medal showdown, NBC smartly bombarded viewers with a well-done ad for today's game. The advertisement pointed out that Chicago's two big stars, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, were playing on opposite sides of the gold medal showdown, but would be back under the Blackhawks banner together next Sunday.
Furthermore, there are few rivalries in the NHL with as much built-in drama and history as the Hawks and the Wings, so all in all it was an excellent choice to try and bring some of those viewers back for more hockey. The problem is, this week's ratings on VS and in local markets have not exactly shown any kind of momentum shift from the gold medal contest. Versus opened strong with 400,000 viewers for the Avs and the Wings on Monday night, but the rest of the week's ratings were closer to their around 250,000 season average. Local ratings here in NYC were not particularly strong either, with the Rangers-Pens doing a below-average .93 rating.
Of course, there are arguments to be made that those ratings have mitigating factors. The Versus network remains off the air on nearly 1/3 of American homes thanks to the ongoing conflict with DirecTV, and the Rangers aren't exactly having the type of banner season that will draw in fans en masse. Today's game, on the other hand, will have no such built-in excuses. Everyone gets NBC, and the Blackhawks are one of the NHL's best teams while the Red Wings are still holding onto the final playoff position. So now the question is, will all the Olympic momentum help NBC improve upon this year's highest number (a 1.1 for the last game before the Olympic break, a marquee showdown between the Pens and Caps)? My prediction is no, we will see it right around that 1.0-1.1 level, but I certainly hope I'm wrong. Anything at a 1.5 or higher would blow away NBC's usual non-Winter Classic regular season numbers, and would be considered a home run for the NHL. Let's hope it happens.
So with the business side of hockey out of the way, let's get down to what we all really care about: the hockey. I'm going to debut what I hope will become a regular weekly feature as we hit the stretch-run: a look at Today's Games to Watch. Basically, I'm going to look at the schedule day-by-day, and make 4 picks per day (unless, of course, there aren't enough games to do that!). Hopefully this can become a daily feature, and if you're like me and you've got Center Ice you'll have a better idea which games are worth your time and which ones to avoid. Even if you don't have Center Ice, I'll be sure to mention which games you can see on national TV.
Marquee Match-Up: The biggest game of the night, the game you absolutely need to see, featuring the biggest stars and/or the best rivalries.
The Runner-Up: Basically the same criteria that applies to the Marquee, just not quite as big of a deal as the night's biggest game.
Under the Radar: This is a game that, for whatever reason, just wouldn't normally jump out at you if you're taking a quick glance at the day's schedule, but upon taking a closer look, this should probably be a great game.
I'd Rather Watch Ice Dancing: With the Winter Olympics fresh on everyone's mind, I'm naming this dubious "award" after the Olympics' most craptastic event that NBC tried to push off on us all in lieu of actual figure skating. Please do yourself a favor, don't watch this game.
With all that out of the way, let's get to it!
Sunday, March 7th
Marquee Match-Up: Detroit Red Wings (30-22-12, 72 points, 3rd in Central, 8th in West) at Chicago Blackhawks (43-16-5, 91 points, 1st in Central, 2nd in West)
12:30 pm EST/9:30 am PST
National TV: NBC (US)
The easiest pick of them all, for all the reasons I already talked about and more. The last time these two teams met on the Peacock, it was one of the most exciting games of the regular season, ending in a shootout victory for the Red Wings. Since that time, however, the Blackhawks have just continued to make their Central division lead more and more insurmountable, while the Wings are in the most unusual (for them) position of trying to just hold on to a playoff spot. As a Hawks fan, I can't tell you how much fun it is to see the Hawks & Wings' longtime positions in the standings flip-flopped, and there's nothing we'd love more than to beat up on the Wings at home to really drive that point home. The Hawks have played well against the Wings this season, but the Wings are finally healthy for the first time all year. In short, this will be a showdown.
Runner-Up: Buffalo Sabres (34-20-9, 77 points, 1st in Northeast, 3rd in East) at New York Rangers (29-28-8, 66 points, 4th in Atlantic, 10th in East)
7:00 pm EST/4:00 pm PST
To be honest, there's slim pickings for the rest of today's schedule, as it's a lot of high-ranked teams playing low-ranked teams. So with that in mind, I'm at least going with one of those match-ups featuring upstate New York's team against Manhattan. While this isn't really a big deal to us Ranger fans, Sabre fans tend to resent the coverage the Rangers get (their network is named MSG, despite being a good 6 hours from there, and tends to focus too much on the Metro-area teams for their liking). Plus, both these teams are desperate for points for entirely different reasons. The Sabres are trying to hold on to a slim 1-point lead in the Northeast standings over the surging Ottawa Senators, while the Rangers have less games remaining than most of the teams around them and need every single point they can get if they want to keep their playoff hopes alive. This will be a battle, folks, worthy of marquee status on a weak day for marquee match-ups.
Under the Radar: Vancouver Canucks (39-23-2, 80 points, 1st in Northwest, 3rd in West) at Nashville Predators (35-24-5, 75 points, 2nd in Central, 7th in West)
3:00 pm EST/12:00 pm PST
Few people are going to see the Nashville Predators as a team that jumps off the page at them, but the Preds have a talented team this year, especially on the back-end, and can be fun to watch at times (they can also be very boring to watch at times, which is why recommending you watch a Preds game is a bit of a crapshoot, but like I said, it's a weak day). The Canucks have those cycle-loving Swedish twins, the Sedins, and Luongo looking to bounce back from giving up 5 goals in the first 20 minutes in Chicago. Of course, this is also game 12 of the Canucks' NHL-record 14-game road trip (and for those of you wondering why they still can't play at GM-slash-Canada Hockey Place, it's called the Paralympics, people), so one has to wonder how much the Canucks have left to give. Sure, the Olympics broke up that road trip, but you try living out of a suitcase for two weeks at a time and see how YOU like it, okay?! Either way, this is an interesting game.
I'd Rather Watch Ice Dancing: New Jersey Devils (38-22-3, 79 points, 2nd in Atlantic, 4th in East) at Edmonton Oilers (20-38-6, 5th in Northwest, 15th in West)
8:00 pm EST/5:00 pm PST
Ugh ugh ugh. Welcome to the downside of increased intra-conference play, kids: it's a "battle" of one of the NHL's best vs. one of the NHL's worst and there's absolutely no rivalry here to make it even the least bit interesting. I'm sure Kevin Smith (of "Mallrats" fame....and yes, that's my favorite movie of his, so he'll always be "of Mallrats fame" to me, goddamnit) is just tickled pink at seeing his two favorite teams go at it, but for the rest of us? Yeah, don't bother. The Habs and the Ducks drop the puck at the same time, and that at least has two teams desperate for points to keep their (slim?) playoff hopes alive in their respective conferences. If you still are in the mood for hockey at 8 pm on a Sunday, just watch that instead.
Bruins @ Pens, 3:00 pm EST: I really can't think of a single relevant thing to write about this game. Sidney Crosby of Team Canada vs. the USA's backup goalie, Tim Thomas? Unless Tuuka Rask starts? Yeah, that's all I got. Verdict: Not Worth Your Time
Flames @ Wild, 3:00 pm EST: A Northwest showdown with two teams currently sitting in 9th and 12th, respectively, but separated by just 4 points in the standings. Yes, the West race for 8th is incredibly tight. This is the definition of a four-point game. I can't go for a full-on recommendation though, just because the Flames tend to play that boring Sutter style of hockey. Should be chippy as all hell, though. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time
Hurricanes @ Thrashers, 5:00 pm EST: Carolina's stunning 7-game winning streak has them 9 points out of a playoff spot after they started the season buried deep beneath the earth with the Maple Leafs (who are all but mathematically eliminated already). To keep this Cinderella run alive, they need to beat their Southeast rivals, with the Kovalchuck-less Thrashers somehow only 2 points back of the Habs for 8th, with 3 games in hand. If the Canes lose this game, you can probably throw the last few clumps of dirt on their season. But if they win, they keep the dream alive. Verdict: Probably Worth Your Time
Maple Leafs @ Flyers, 7:00 pm EST: Speaking of the Leafs, they're in Philadelphia. Yeah. Raise your hand if you care? Really, Toronto? You care? How incredibly shocking. For those of us who DON'T continue to unequivocally support losers, yeah, take a pass on this one. Go read a book instead. Verdict: Not Worth Your Time
Canadiens @ Ducks, 8:00 pm EST (National TV on the NHL Network, Canada only): As I mentioned already before, these are two teams that really, really need points to keep their playoff hopes alive. The Ducks made some moves at the deadline that didn't help them out one bit in Phoenix, where they got shutout 4-0 in a listless affair. You'd think a team that's fighting for their playoff lives would, you know, at least SHOW UP against a division rival, but apparently you'd be wrong. They've played very well at home this year, however, and the Habs are coming off an energetic game against the Kings last night, so I'm predicting a blowout for the Ducks. If it's not, this could be a fun game, and you have the intrigue of Saku Koivu playing against the team he was Captain of for the first time. Still can't go a full-monty on the recommendation, just because of the blowout possibility, but jesus christ if you really want to watch hockey at 8 pm, this is damn sure a better bet than that Devils-Flames game. It will be on the NHL Network in Canada; of note, the NHL Network in the US will air Canadian junior hockey, WHL to be exact, featuring the Calgary Hitmen and the Saskatoon Blades. Personally I'll be checking that out instead, just for the "it's never on TV in the States" curiosity factor. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time
Hope you guys enjoyed that. I'll try to work more of the kinks out day-by-day, but hopefully this will provide you with a little bit of perspective on what to watch and what not to watch in the NHL. Thanks for reading, feel free to provide feedback! I'm all ears.