- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 16, 2009

The NHL has a chance to dominate the sports landscape for a few weeks as it opens the Stanley Cup playoffs during a deceptively slow period in the sports landscape.

College basketball is over, the buzz over the start of baseball season has worn off and the NBA playoffs probably won’t heat up until May. It’s a small window of opportunity for the NHL, but the league is poised to take advantage with a number of compelling early-round matchups that should push the Nielsen meter upward for networks like Comcast Sports Net, Versus and NBC.

Flyers-Penguins? Yeah, that’ll draw some eyeballs. Bruins-Canadiens? Ditto. The Chicago Blackhawks are going for their first playoff series win since 1996, the Detroit Red Wings are looking to repeat and, of course, Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals face the New York Rangers.

Locally, Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic has the rights to the Caps-Rangers series, while Versus will broadcast the games nationally during the week to the rest of the country. NBC has the national rights to Saturday’s game and the if-necessary Game 6 next week. Versus is expected to air at least one hockey game a night throughout the postseason, often showing a doubleheader that includes a game from the Western Conference. Some broadcasts will carry the feeds from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. or The Sports Network in Canada.

For Versus, there’s a good chance the playoffs will help give the network another year of ratings growth for its hockey coverage. Total viewership for regular-season hockey on the network was up 21 percent from last season and more than 50 percent higher among men between the ages of 18 and 49. Nearly 33 million people this season watched hockey on Versus, which has used the NHL as a key driver for viewership of its other properties, including the World Extreme Cagefighting mixed martial arts promotion and the Indy Racing League.

“There’s a lot of momentum from hockey right now,” said Marc Fein, Versus’ executive vice president of programming.

It has been a good season for not just Versus but Comcast SportsNet as well, and the Capitals have played a major role in that. Both networks reported an increase in ratings for Caps games this season as the team set a club record for points and secured the second seed in the Eastern Conference.

Comcast SportsNet averaged more than 25,000 households a game, a 65 percent increase from last year. That increase came on top of a 75 percent boost from the 2006-2007 season.

Versus, meanwhile, had an 18 percent increase in local market ratings for the eight Capitals games it showed. And even non-Capitals broadcasts got a boost from hockey fans in the D.C. area, with total viewership in the area rising 121 percent.

Broadcasters will never admit to pulling for specific teams, but they quietly root for certain matchups. This year, though, the playoffs could produce some nice conference semifinal games regardless of who wins in the first round. This is particularly true in the East, where only the Canadiens and Hurricanes would struggle to draw American viewers. In the West, U.S. broadcasters probably hope to avoid deep runs by the Flames, Canucks, Ducks and Blue Jackets. But it also comes down to the competitiveness of games and the length of series.

There’s a small window here where the NHL might grab the attention of casual sports fans, and an exciting first round could give the league momentum all the way to the end of spring.

• Tim Lemke can be reached at tlemke@washingtontimes.com.

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