- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 11, 2000

Officials for Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh did not have a lot of faith the Penguins would be in postseason this spring or perhaps even in town seven of the 14 days the NHL listed as probable first-round playoff dates are unavailable for hockey at the aging structure because of scheduling conflicts.

That, and a demand by Walt Disney-owned ABC that Washington and Pittsburgh play Saturday so the network can televise the game, has caused a major reconfiguration of what has become the traditional makeup of a playoff series. Many Capitals fans are irate, fearing the new format will put the team at a serious disadvantage.

The NHL announced the first round-playoff schedule in the wee hours of yesterday morning after hours of infighting between the league, television officials from the three Disney outlets (ABC, ESPN, ESPN2) and four Canadian networks and representatives from the 16 teams involved, many of whom were not pleased.

The traditional best-of-7 format has the team seeded higher hosting Games 1 and 2, plus Games 5 and 7 if necessary; the lower-seeded team hosts Games 3 and 4 and Game 6 if necessary.

That is not possible for the Caps-Penguins opening round because of scheduling conflicts in Pittsburgh and TV demands. The Caps, seeded second in the Eastern Conference, will host Game 1 at 7:38 p.m. Thursday before the series shifts to Pittsburgh (seeded seventh) for Game 2 (2:08 p.m. Saturday) and Game 3 (7:08 p.m. Monday). Games 4 and 5 (7:38 p.m. April 19 and 7:08 p.m. April 21, respectively) return to the MCI Center, Game 6 is in Pittsburgh on April 23 at an undetermined time and Game 7 is at MCI at 7:08 p.m. April 25.

"If we steal Game 1, I think [the odds] slide to our favor," said Pittsburgh right wing Matthew Barnaby, citing the very concern expressed by dozens of Washington fans worried the Caps might be in an 0-3 hole when they return home for Game 4.

Frank Brown, an NHL vice president, yesterday cited a rule that has been on the books for five years just to deal with scheduling conflicts. It came about as a result of a massive foul-up in Miami in 1996, when a Boston-Florida series was begun, put on hold for five days, then concluded with four games in six days.

"If a club does not have its building available for three consecutive nights, the commissioner may alter the sequence of games in that round, as in a 1-2-2-1-1 format," Brown said. "The series of rounds may also be adjusted to satisfy television requirements or the lack of building availability that may force the league to adjust the schedule."

The Caps and Penguins could have accommodated the TV demand playing the first two games in Washington and televising the Saturday game, but Mellon Arena was booked most of the following week, meaning some other option had to be worked out.

One league source said it was suggested, presumably by TV representatives, that the first two games be played Wednesday and Friday nights in Washington and Game 3 played in Pittsburgh on Saturday afternoon. Both teams, the source said, flatly rejected that plan as unrealistic.

"I have no problem with the schedule," Caps coach Ron Wilson said. "We have to play them seven times, if it goes that far, [and] I don't think it really matters where you play them."

This will be the sixth time the teams have met in the playoffs, with Washington winning the opening game in each series but advancing only once. But the Caps have been a dominate team at home this season while one game below .500 on the road. The Penguins won the season series 3-1-0.

Hank Abate, the Mellon Arena general manager, defended his booking of the facility, saying it would have been "irresponsible of me to … block everything between early April and June for hockey… . What usually happens is that we book the building and the NHL works around us."

There were serious suggestions five years ago after the Miami fiasco that owners who do not safeguard playoff dates either by leaving them open or booking events that can't be moved be subject to the loss of a home playoff date, a heavy financial setback and the source of embarrassment in the league and community.

Philadelphia-based Spectator Management Group (SMG) runs the Mellon Arena and has battled the hockey team in bankruptcy court for more than a year. A group headed by former Penguin great Mario Lemieux took over shortly before the season started but only after renegotiating the team lease. SMG is in charge of booking the building, the oldest in the league.

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