Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Versus returns to DirecTV; Today's Games to Watch 3/16

Alright folks, I know I missed a couple of days, and no it wasn't just out of the shame of being there in-person for my Blackhawks' 2.1 second collapse against the Flyers on Saturday. The Hawks weren't the only things collapsing on Saturday; the sky itself apparently decided to join them, as this entire region was just flooded nonstop with rain on Saturday & into early Sunday. So I ended up staying overnight in one of my least favorite places, putting the kibosh on any hopes of getting a blog up before the first NHL game at 12:30. As far as yesterday goes, did you really need me to tell you which of the THREE games to watch? Probably not. But we've got a full slate of 11 games to get into today, so here I am.

But before we get back into the swing of things, I wanted to talk a little bit about the return to DirecTV of the NHL's oft-maligned cable partner, Versus. As a DTV customer this kind of hits home, and obviously I'm thrilled the NHL playoffs will be on the satcaster. Before we put the kibosh on this story for good, let's take a look at a few of the details that came out in the network's return.

There should no longer be any debate on what the REAL cause for this outage was, thanks to some very telling quotes from both sides. From the beginning of this whole mess (way back in LATE AUGUST), we heard two different sides to this story. There was the Comcast/Versus side, which said that DirecTV wanted to put them on a lower programming tier (a sports-specific tier, apparently), and they would not accept losing a very large percentage of their viewership just when they were adding a ton of new properties. Meanwhile, the DirecTV side never said anything about a tier, they just said Comcast wanted more money and they were refusing to pay it.

Well, read the quotes from yesterday closely enough, and one thing stands out: Versus is not only back on DirecTV, but they're back on *the same tier they were on back before all this started*. The quotes go on to specifically state they will stay there from here on out. This not only means that Comcast's quotes were, at the very least, quite a bit less dishonest than DirecTV's, but it also means that there should be no question who blinked first and who, in the end, "won" this whole mess. Comcast said they were open to negotiations on money (and I imagine they did have to take a bit of a hit from what they were originally asking), but being placed on a lower tier was a non-starter and no deal would be done with that included. Not that I should have to reiterate it for you again, but that's exactly what happened.

DirecTV was facing mounting pressure from three different sides to get the network back; namely, the NHL fans we all know about have been increasingly pressuring the satcaster to get the network back on the air in time for the stretch run and the playoffs. It's worth noting that Versus has probably their strongest schedule I've ever seen from them for the rest of the regular season, including both of the remaining meetings in the NHL's most high-profile rivalry, the Capitals and the Penguins. A shocking amount of fans had already switched to their rival Dish Network in the past six months, thanks in part to a clever ad campaign that specifically pointed out Dish had Versus and DTV didn't, and you have to believe that number only would have jumped tenfold once the playoffs started and people were theoretically missing games not just twice a week, but every single night! It's also worth noting that several articles I've seen have mentioned that the pressure on DirecTV from hockey fans went up significantly after the Olympics, saying that hockey's "increased visibility" from the Games greatly helped Versus & the NHL put more pressure on the satcaster.

Besides that increased pressure from hockey fans, DirecTV was also under pressure from fans of mixed marital-arts, as the juggernaut UFC promotion has its first-ever event on Versus scheduled for this weekend. Finally, cycling fans have apparently been making some noise to DirecTV as well, as Lance Armstrong will be back in the Tour de France this year, which airs exclusively on, you guessed it, Versus. So facing all of this mounting pressure from all sides, DirecTV finally gave in and dropped their ridiculous demand, and what do you know, a deal got done almost immediately.

Hopefully they learned something from this whole sideshow mess: if you're going to promote your satellite service as having "the most sports coverage", you can't just ignore several sports because you don't think they're important. Yes, Versus is nowhere near as important as ESPN, everyone is aware of this. But when one of your sources of subscriptions is having one of the best all-around NHL Center Ice packages out there, you can't simultaneously thumb your noses at hockey fans and tell them their sport doesn't count. They lost a ton of this money through this whole process from irate hockey fans calling up, complaining, and getting 25, 50, and yes, even 100% refunds off their Center Ice packages, and they lost even more money from fans who finally just gave up on the service altogether. This all could have ended when the regular season started in October if they had just dropped their silly demand and put Versus back on the air, and hopefully the people in charge can look in the mirror and realize they just wasted seven months and a lot of profits and, in the end, had to give up on their demand altogether anyway. They lost, Versus won, end of story.


Okay, with that bit of business out of the way, let's get back to the hockey. As always, here's the awards I'll be giving out to tonight's games:

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.

Once those four picks are done with, I'll go through The Rest and tell you which of those games just might be worth your time as well. Even if you don't have Center Ice, I'll make sure to note which (if any) of these games are available on national TV in the US & Canada.

Tuesday, March 16th
An 11-game schedule provides some excitement, but there's really no genuine best-on-best match-ups to really get our hearts pumping.

Marquee Match-Up: Montreal Canadiens (35-29-6, 76 points, 3rd in Northeast, 7th in East) at New York Rangers (31-29-9, 71 points, 4th in Atlantic, 9th in East)
7:30 pm EST/4:30 pm PST
National TV: Versus (US) & RDS (Canada, french only)
Two original six teams step into the spotlight on Versus (hey, a tie-in to the rest of the blog, yay!), as the Habs make a rare national TV appearance in the US as they visit the suddenly revitalized Rangers. The Rangers are sitting 1 point back of the struggling Bruins (who are in Carolina tonight), but the Bruins will still have a game in hand after tonight's games, making a win here for the Blueshirts even more important. Meanwhile, the Habs have been playing great hockey as of late, and they'll be riding a 5-game winning streak into the Garden. They couldn't have picked a better time to get hot, as they've still played more games than anyone else in the East (including the Rangers), so even though they're coming closer to locking up a playoff spot with each win of this streak, nothing's guaranteed just yet. If both these teams play as well as they've been playing of late, this should be nothing short of a great match-up, well worthy of marquee status. And hey, DirecTV customers, you can actually watch it! How about that?
Prediction: Rangers 4-3 (SO)

Runner-Up: Toronto Maple Leafs (23-34-12, 58 points, 5th in Northeast, 15th in East) at Ottawa Senators (37-27-5, 79 points, 2nd in Northeast, 5th in East)
7:30 pm EST/4:30 pm PST
Though it's hard to pick the Maple Leafs for runners-up in anything other than "biggest failures" (and actually, that might offend Oilers fans since they, unlike Toronto, at least still have their 1st round pick), on a relatively weak night in marquee-quality match-ups, I have to give the nod to the Battle of Ontario. Here's something that might surprise you: that same Senators team that went on their club-record-setting 11-game win streak just a few short months ago has the exact same record as their southern Ontario counterparts in their last 10 games: 4-5-1. For the Leafs, that's a reflection of stronger play of late as some of the kids have stepped into the line-up and looked promising. For the Sens, on the other hand, that's a reflection of how they've suddenly run out of goals, and they've gone from having a slight lead over Buffalo in the Northeast to starting to fade fast in that particular race. You have to believe the Leafs would love nothing more than to beat their Ontario rivals and help continue that slide out of contention for home-ice advantage, in their own barn no less. This game could provide some excitement as a result.
Prediction: Sens 4-2

Under the Radar: Philadelphia Flyers (36-28-4, 76 points, 3rd in Atlantic, 6th in East) at Nashville Predators (38-26-5, 81 points, 2nd in Central, 7th in West)
8:00 pm EST/5:00 pm PST
This may be hard to believe when we're talking about an 11-game schedule for a league where MORE THAN HALF of the teams make the playoffs, but this is the only game of the night where both teams are in playoff position going into the game. So even though a game that reads "Flyers @ Predators" probably doesn't jump off the page at you, in actuality this is probably the night's best match-up, at least as far as the quality of the two teams goes. Both teams are also playing relatively well of late: the Flyers are 7-3-0 in their last 10 and the Preds are 6-4-0, with both teams coming off huge late victories over good opponents (the Flyers with the aforementioned 2.1 second shocker over the Hawks, while the Preds scored with about a minute-and-a-half to play to continue their mastery over the Kings). This should be a good, tight-checking, low-scoring battle between two teams who know how to play defense. As Mike Babcock said last night after the Wings-Flames game, even though people like to say "such and such game had a playoff feel", it's still not the playoffs. But this is probably as close as you're going to get tonight.
Prediction: Preds 3-2 (SO)

I'd Rather Watch Ice Dancing: Edmonton Oilers (21-41-7, 49 points, 5th in Northwest, 15th in West) at Minnesota Wild (33-29-6, 72 points, 4th in Northwest, 11th in West)
8:00 pm EST/5:00 pm PST
I'm sure there will be some smart-aleck who will read this and think to themselves "But John, at least this is a divisional rivalry! What about, say, the Avs and the Blues?". And to you, imaginary person, I say, hogwash! How much of a divisional rivalry can it really be when one team is 20 GAMES BELOW .500 and it's a battle of 4th and 5th in the division? Please. At least the Avs and the Blues are both above .500. Hell, one of those teams is even in the playoffs! Don't get me wrong, I'm not gonna tell you to watch that game either, but as far as games on tonight's schedule that are completely useless, I still give the edge to this one. Then again, given how the past few games I've given this award to have turned out (Sharks-Panthers was a 3-2 overtime thriller win for Florida, the Wild upset the Sabres 3-2 as well), I'm sure this game will turn out to be exciting, just so I can be wrong again.
Prediction: Wild 4-1

The Rest
Bruins @ Hurricanes, 7:00 pm EST: The Bruins are bad, but it's not for a lack of effort. They play hard and they usually play physical, but they just don't have the goal-scoring on most nights to get things done, especially now with Marc Savard out. It's hard to believe considering they're still holding onto a playoff spot in the East by the skin of their teeth, but the Bruins are 30th in goals for per game. Yes, out of 30. Meanwhile, Carolina's still got their sights set on a miracle comeback, 8 points back of the Bruins going into tonight, so obviously a win here would be huge. 4 point game, might just make it exciting. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time

Sabres @ Thrashers, 7:00 pm EST: The Thrashers' playoff hopes are fading fast with each heartbreaking loss, and they suffered yet another one to the Coyotes in a shootout. How many home games can Atlanta squander before they're officially out of it? Tonight they've got Eastern heavyweights Buffalo in, and this will either be a slaughter for the Sabres, or a very competitive, up-tempo game. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time

Coyotes @ Lightning, 7:30 pm EST: I heard one of Tampa's beat writers say he thinks the Lightning played their two best games of the season over the weekend; unfortunately for Tampa, that was still only good enough for a 1-1-0 record, thanks to a heartbreaking late goal given up against the Penguins. They won't have much time to dwell on that as they'll welcome the streaking Coyotes into the Forum. I'm expecting a physical, competitive game, as it's do-or-die time for Tampa. Of all the "rest" games, this is easily your best bet. Verdict: Probably Worth Your Time

Capitals @ Panthers, 7:30 pm EST: Fortunately for the Panthers, Ovechkin got suspended two games for his hit on Brian Campbell. Unfortunately for the Panthers, the Capitals have a great record without Ovie in the line-up this season, as this isn't 2007 anymore and they're much more than a one man show. The last time these two teams played in Florida, it was a super-exciting, high-scoring comeback win for the Caps; then again, the last time the Caps played in Florida, the Panthers were still a playoff contender. Verdict: Not Worth Your Time

Avalanche @ Blues, 8:00 pm EST: Hey, so, remember when I said that this game wasn't quite bad enough to win tonight's Ice Dancing award? That should in no way be construed as telling you to watch it. Verdict: Not Worth Your Time

Sharks @ Stars, 8:30 pm EST: Remember when Dallas was sitting in 10th for the longest time and kept flirting with the idea of being an actual, honest-to-goodness playoff contender? Well, they're sitting in 12th now, 9 points back of 8th place Detroit. So much for that. Oh yeah, this game will probably suck, too. Verdict: Not Worth Your Time

Islanders @ Canucks, 10:00 pm EST: I've been getting a lot of crap from a very good friend of mine who happens to be an Isles fan about how often I tell people not to watch Islanders games. To be fair to the Isles, they've won 2 in a row and they've been better of late. But beating a Devils team that's actually not playing Marty and beating the Toronto Maple Leafs are two totally different things from beating one of the NHL's best in the Vancouver Canucks. With all that said, since it's the only late game tonight anyway, I'm gonna give the Isles the benefit of the doubt and say this MIGHT actually be competitive, if only because the Canucks are due for a let-down game. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time

Alright folks, that's it from me. As always, enjoy the hockey!

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