Stanley Cup Final: Scheduling Offsides

The chase for Lord Stanley’s Cup in 2009 has largely made for boom times for Versus.

Comcast’s national sports network has taken a few hits: by some criticizing its coverage; because it counts 20 million fewer homes than ESPN; and among those longing for the putative halcyon days of puck coverage on the worldwide leader.

But Versus, now in its fourth year with the NHL, has skated along with a rising ratings tide in the regular season and through the highest-rated second-round (highlighted by the marquee, seven-game matchup between Sid “The Kid” Crosby and his Pittsburgh Penguins and Alex “The Great” Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals) on cable since 1997 and the best third round with the medium since 1998.

Sure, Versus could have received a few more games in the conference finals — Detroit dispatched of Chicago in five, Pittsburgh swept Carolina. Nonetheless, Detroit’s Game 5 clincher surpassed the network’s marks for the first two games of last year’s Stanley Cup Final. The May 27 contest set network records for households and matched Lance Armstrong’s then final ride in 2005, when he captured his seventh Tour De France crown, with a 2.1 rating.

Versus and the league have to be thrilled with the action occurring in Hockey Town and the Igloo, with the first Stanley Cup Final rematch since the New York Islanders engaged the Edmonton Oilers in 1983 and 1984. Whether Detroit can become the first NHL team to defend its crown since the Red Wings repeated in 1997-98, or whether Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can play the 2009 version of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, who ended the Islanders dynasty, should make for fascinating theater.

Not to mention strong hockey Nielsens, if the NHL’s, reluctant, revenue-sharing broadcast partner NBC wasn’t so pucked up. The Peacock — which already steered clear of Washington-Pittsburgh series — now doesn’t want to call any interference on Conan O’Brien’s coming out party as the new Jay Leno next week.

As such, it has forced the league’s hand, pushing up the schedule for Games 1 and 2 at Joe Louis Arena, to back-to-back affairs on Saturday and Sunday nights. After all, OT could run into the local news and knock Conan off kilter.

Not only is this a disservice to the players and coaches, it places the first game on TV’s lowest-rated night. And for the more casually inclined to view sports, there will be competition with the Vitamin Water and Nike-sponsored soap opera, known as LeBron Lives (For Now), as the Cavaliers try to take the measure of the Magic and force a Game 7 in the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals.

Because Kobe did work in taking out the Nuggets Friday night in Game 6, NBC has now finally deigned to schedule Game 2 without the fear factor of matching up against what could have been Game 7 out West. The Peacock replaced its TBA with an 8 p.m. face-off, the same time ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball will feature the 2009 Division Series rematch between LA Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs.

With the Peacock shifting to the first two contests, Versus now will have Games 3 and 4 of the Stanly Cup Final. Unfortunately for the cable network, its fourth game telecast will go head-to-head with the first game of the NBA Finals on Thursday June 4

Nice to know your linemate has your back in the corner.