Big shots

The Baltimore Sun

As shots go, the ones provided by the Pittsburgh Penguins' Max Talbot and Petr Sykora on Monday night were shots in the arm for the NHL in general, even if they left the Detroit Red Wings smarting.

Thanks to Talbot's game-tying goal with 35 seconds left in regulation and Sykora's winner from the right circle on a power play in the third overtime, the NHL will keep skating for at least one more game. The Penguins-Red Wings Stanley Cup Finals move back to Pittsburgh for Game 6 tonight with Detroit leading 3-2.

The importance of extending the series is in no small way attached to TV ratings, a huge consideration in the pro sports universe.

With NBC picking up the coverage of the Stanley Cup Finals, the dramatic Game 5 was reportedly the highest-rated Stanley Cup Finals contest in six years. The NHL needed that kind of boost after last year's ratings debacle that was the Anaheim Ducks-Ottawa Senators Stanley Cup matchup.

But after the first two games of the current series, it didn't look as if the NHL would have much of a chance to capitalize on the attractive pairing of upstart Pittsburgh and old-guard Detroit. The Red Wings shut out the Penguins decisively in two straight games to bolt to a 2-0 lead. But since the network started airing the games, Pittsburgh has rallied to make it a horse race. Game 6 tonight should do well, and a potential Game 7 during prime time Saturday night could produce the highest U.S. ratings for an NHL game in perhaps forever.

The NHL has finally caught a few breaks in trying to re-establish its popularity since the lockout season. The New Year's Day outdoor game at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium between the Penguins and Sabres drew better ratings than any NHL regular-season game in more than a decade. The response encouraged the NHL to plan another outdoor game for next New Year's Day.

Now, the league and commissioner Gary Bettman have caught lightning in the bottle off the sticks of Talbot and Sykora.

Not everyone agrees that this is all that beneficial for the NHL from a big-picture perspective. A reader of my blog wrote yesterday that U.S. television ratings are fool's gold whose pursuit by Bettman has led the league down a foolhardy path of expansion.

Reader Joe Dalhart, in part, wrote: "Let me play devil's advocate and say that I don't believe any kind of national NHL TV ratings really matter. Hockey remains a regional sport, and I'd argue that Gary Bettman's push to 'nationalize' the sport has really only diluted it. Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup a few years ago, but is Tampa-[St. Petersburg] a hockey town? Is Atlanta, or Nashville, or Raleigh, or Phoenix? ... If I were the king of hockey, I'd look ... at moving a couple of these struggling teams back north into now-revitalized markets like Winnipeg and the Kitchener-London area in southern Ontario."

I agree that hockey's reach has exceeded its grasp and that it certainly could benefit from contraction and relocation.

But in the context of today's realities, the NHL is in a fierce battle for television rights deals, air time and ratings with the likes of mixed martial arts and poker, and it's anyone's guess how that works out in the long run for hockey. In the near term, though, those goals from Talbot and Sykora were money in the bank.

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