If there has been one flaw for the L.A. Kings this post season it has been closing out series at home, which thus far has always been Game 4. Last night proved to be the same as the Kings fell 3-1 to the New Jersey Devils before a crazy Staples Center crowd allowing the series to shift back to Newark. The first two periods were a defensive slugfest culminating in a wild 3rd with the first markers being scored just over a minute apart. Late in the period clutch rookie Adam Henrique scored another huge goal to win the game and Ilya Kovalchuk finally got on the board with an empty net goal. In all likelihood this is just a bump in the road for the suddenly mighty Kings, but the Devils victory added some much-needed drama to the Finals.
And the way things are going, everyone outside of LA will likely be rooting for the Devils Saturday night. A New Jersey win officially makes this a series and will hopefully help the low viewership numbers thus far. Game 1 and 2, both of which were overtime thrillers, drew 25% and 12% lower than last years Finals. And with a 2-0 series lead, Game 3 saw a 37% drop from last year and was beat soundly by the NBA Conference Finals (and narrowly edged out by Cupcake Wars on the Food Network). This is particularly troubling for NHL Executives since it could be argued that the two biggest sports markets in the nation are in the Finals as the Newark area is included as a part of the New York market. And all signs had been pointing to a historic year for the NHL Playoffs. For the first time the NBC Networks were set to broadcast every game and opening round games, such as Game 6 between the Capitals and Bruins, were drawing record numbers. Such a precipitous fall is surprising and might speak to the overall popularity of the League, which many thought was on the rise.
There are a lot of possible reasons for the low viewership. One could simply be the lack of a marquee team or player. The Kings are not a traditional hockey market and despite their new goal scoring style, the Devils are still thought to be a boring trapping team by most. There also are not a lot of compelling individual storylines for the casual fans. Alex Ovechkin is not looking for his 1st Cup, Sidney Crosby is not overcoming his injuries to win again, and beloved vets like Daniel Alfredsson, Jarome Iginla, or Shane Doan are not seeking their 1st Cup. Another issue is that many of the games, including Game 4, are not being shown on NBC, but rather their cable station NBC Sports, limiting potential viewers. While it is nice that NBC gives hockey the top shelf treatment, numbers would be higher if the games were on traditional sports powerhouses like ABC or FOX or even the cable king ESPN. Another possible issue is other options for sports fans, as the NBA Playoffs are in full swing now. So, while it was believed the NHL was officially back following the lockout, the numbers for the showcase event seem to tell a different story.
The NHL needed a strong finals this year as the collective bargaining agreement is up. There is a lot to be discussed before any deal is signed, such as contract lengths, hits to the heads, supplemental discipline, and what the new cap will be. There is even discussion of the potential of another lockout, with former player and NHLPA representative Trevor Linden going as far as saying to prepare for a lockout.. One has to wonder what kind of impact the low ratings will have at the negotiating table. The hope would be that the owners would feel a sense of urgency to get a deal done, because they would have to question whether the league survives another lockout.
Matt Ragghianti is an NHL writer for The Sports Bliz and can be contacted at MRagghianti@TheSportsBlitz.com