The NHL just might redeem itself this Friday night despite the league's best efforts to keep viewers in the penalty box by scheduling Game 6 the same night as the NBA Finals on ABC and showing Games 3 and 4 on Versus instead of NBC.
There are several reasons to believe Friday's Game 7 matchup between the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins could at the very least set a record for the most-watched Game 7 in NHL history. It will almost certainly draw a large amount of viewers. The question is, how many?
Before listing why this game might go down in ratings history, it helps to put the telecast in perspective. Game 4 of the Cup Finals averaged 3.45 million viewers on Versus in comparison to the NBA Finals Game 1 on ABC which drew 13.4 million. Game 6 of hockey's Stanley Cup Finals on NBC nabbed 5.81 million viewers while 14.2 million viewers tuned into Lakers-Magic Game 3.
So, obviously the NHL won't be competing with the NBA anytime soon in terms of ratings. But, there are some encouraging signs that point to a potential ratings bonanza for Game 7.
-- Despite all my complaints about the inaccessibility of Versus as a niche network not on basic cable, the sports channel did have a reason to boast as Game 4 was the most-watched telecast in the network's history and overall viewership was up 42 percent from Games 1 and 2 of last year's Final. Also, Game 4 earned the highest cable ratings for an NHL playoff series since 2002.
-- Game 6 on NBC earned the best numbers for the 2009 series despite competing with the NBA Finals on ABC, which bodes well for Friday night's coverage. Game 7 will be televised on NBC to a national audience and will have the night to itself as the NBA Finals series doesn't resume until Sunday. The game also falls on a Friday night when many people are welcoming the weekend at bars, many of which will be reluctantly forced to turn the game on.
-- Fridays are a weak ratings night for general programming which is why networks don't usually schedule the big shows that night. At the 8 p.m. puck drop (5 p.m. West Coast time) the hockey game will be going up against "Reba" on ABC, "Don't Forget the Lyrics!" on Fox, "Surviving Suburbia" on ABC and a repeat of "Ghost Whisperer" on CBS.
-- For the first time since 2003 there will be two American teams battling for the championship in Game 7. The 2003 game featured the New Jersey Devils shutting out the Anaheim Mighty Ducks 3-0. Since then there have been two more seventh games, both with at least one Canadian team, which means an entire city not on the ratings map -- Tampa Bay-Calgary in 2004 and Carolina-Edmonton in 2006.
-- Both the Penguins and Red Wings are marquee franchises with big-name stars. The Red Wings are one of the most recognizable franchises in professional sports and Forbes magazine recently rated the Penguins the fasted-growing team brand in hockey and third in the four major sports. With names such as Crosby, Malkin, Zetterberg and Osgood on the ice at Joe Louis Arena Friday there will be no shortage of star power and intrigue to draw viewers in.
-- There is high drama in this series which should hopefully make for some heart-pounding moments in Game 7, especially if it is close or goes into overtime. The Wings beat the Pens in six games last year so Pittsburgh has a chance to redeem themselves on enemy ice and prevent Detroit from winning its second straight Cup in front of the home crowd. Who will be the hero? Crosby? Malkin? Zetterberg? Datsyuk? A lesser-known player? Will Fleury and Osgood stand tall in front of the net or buckle under the pressure?
-- Lastly, the young Pittsburgh team has an opportunity to win a rare Game 7 Cup Final on the road. History is not on their side: only two road teams have won the Cup in a Stanley Cup Final Game 7. Montreal won 3-2 in Chicago in 1971. The other time? Way back in 1941 when Toronto beat the Red Wings 2-1 in Detroit.