- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 25, 2022

A decade ago, the Stanley Cup Playoffs had an unlikely foe: SpongeBob SquarePants.

Reruns of the popular Nickelodeon show would occasionally outdraw an NHL playoff game, and non-hockey fans would be quick to make a big deal of those embarrassing instances.

But the days of battling with the sponge in the pineapple under the sea are over for the NHL, as the ratings for the Stanley Cup Playoffs are up significantly in the first year of the league’s partnership with ESPN and Turner Sports. 

As some networks and rival sports leagues deal with depressed viewership due to cord-cutters and streaming (looking at you, baseball), the NHL could be in the midst of its best postseason in years. Five Game 7s helped boost the numbers in the first round, and the drama has continued in the conference semifinals as the Battle of Alberta rages on and the Lightning go for a three-peat.

First-round games averaged 768,000 viewers across ESPN, ESPN2, TNT and TBS, , according to the NHL. That figure is a 58% increase from last year’s first round and a 20% increase compared to the pre-pandemic 2019 postseason — both of which were televised on NBCSN, CNBC and USA. 

And the numbers have continued to look promising in the second round. 

An average of 2.02 million viewers tuned into Game 2 of the Rangers-Hurricanes series on ESPN — the largest audience for a second-round contest on cable since 2015. Even games between Calgary and Edmonton — two teams based in Alberta, Canada — have drawn more than 1 million average viewers. 

While the numbers are good, they’re far from great — and also far from what the NBA playoffs draw. The basketball league’s postseason is also seeing improved ratings compared to recent years, with the first two rounds across TNT, ESPN, ABC and NBA TV averaging 3.71 million viewers — the NBA’s best figure since 2014. 

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman told NHL.com that the numbers are a positive start to the league’s seven-year, $1 billion deal with ESPN and Turner Sports. 

“It is what we hoped and expected,” Bettman said. 

Arguably the most captivating part of the second round has been the Battle of Alberta between Calgary and Edmonton. 

The two heated rivals combined for an eye-popping 15 goals in Game 1, and the Oilers lead the series 3-1 with Game 5 scheduled for Thursday night. Superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl — the last two winners of the last two Hart Trophy — have continued their high-flying ways in the series, combining for four goals and 20 assists in the first four games versus the Flames. 

But the story of the conference finals, and possibly the Stanley Cup Finals, will be if the Tampa Bay Lightning can three-peat. 

Four years after falling to the Washington Capitals in the 2018 Eastern Conference finals, the Lightning are on the precipice of becoming a dynasty. After narrowly topping the Maple Leafs in seven games, the Lightning quickly disposed of the Florida Panthers — the Presidents’ Trophy-winning squad that eliminated the Capitals in the first round — with a four-game sweep. 

Tampa Bay has now won 10 straight playoff series, but captain Steven Stamkos said the Lightning aren’t satisfied.

“We want 12 straight,” he said. “When you take a step back and put things into perspective, especially in the salary-cap world that we’re in and the parity in our league, it’s a very special group.”

• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at jmeyer@washingtontimes.com.

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