The elephant in the room regarding the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs is starting to stamp its foot (we call him "Stampy" for that reason, and because we're hopeless Simpsons nostalgists). Parity had led to some fascinating hockey in the first round of the NHL Playoffs, but it's leading the League to an interesting test of its popularity in the U.S.
If the current series leaders hold serve, the second-round matchups in the Eastern Conference will have the Washington Capitals in a powder keg of a series against the Philadelphia Flyers, which will counterbalance the relative obscurity of the Florida Panthers battling the Ottawa Senators.
In the Western Conference, the St. Louis Blues would battle the Los Angeles Kings in a series of 1-0, quadruple overtime games, while the Phoenix Coyotes would face the Nashville Predators.
All of this means that either the Panthers or Senators would play for the East title; ditto the Coyotes or Predators in the West.
All of this means the second round will be without a single Original Six team for the first time since 2006.
Should this make the NHL and NBC more than a little nervous?
They've had an incredibly fortunate run since 2008: Two Detroit Red Wings vs. Pittsburgh Penguins finals; then the Chicago Blackhawks' drought-snapping run against the equally Cup hungry Flyers; and then the Boston Bruins pulling a 64 share in a Game 7 to help NBC to huge ratings despite the presence of a Canadian team in the championship round.
Meanwhile, in 2012, we could end up with Florida vs. Nashville.
Look, if everything holds, the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs might not be something the cool kids get behind this year. National media is a sucker for a big market team playing for a championship. There's a better chance that the "who cares about hoc-key?" crowd will treat a Final between two small market teams with abject ridicule.
But I actually see this as a chance for the NHL and its television partner to make a compelling statement. Ratings are up for the 2012 playoffs, and for the first time NBC is give exposure to every game of every series (with an assist from NHL Network), and ratings have grown for the last few postseasons.
Four years ago, having the Red Wings, Blackhawks, Rangers, Penguins, Devils and Sharks as first-round casualties might have derailed the rest of the playoffs from a ratings perspective. I'm not sure that's the case any longer. In 2007, the Ducks and Ottawa earned historically low ratings in the Final; I think the NHL has moved beyond that happening again.
The NHL is at a place where the Stanley Cup Playoffs have become appointment television for hockey fans. Maybe not for the casuals that need the Bruins or Blackhawks droughts or Sidney Crosby in the Final for them to make time in June, but I believe there's going to be a core audience that's down with a St. Louis vs. Nashville Western Conference Final.
(Never mind the enormous local ratings that matchup would provide.)
It's a chance to make a statement about the NHL's surge in popularity not simply being tied to Original Six franchises playing for the Cup or outdoor hockey games. And it's a chance for us to gauge how far the League has come since the lockout.
What's your take on a parity-fueled second round and beyond: Refreshing or depressing?
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