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Puck Talk With Popchock: Pens-Wings Deserves Spotlight

Dan Cleary and Marc-Andre Fleury

(Courtesy of Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

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By Matt Popchock

So what’s everybody doing tonight?

I know where I’ll be (and so does everyone else, I’m sure): on a couch with my eyes glued to what might be the premier inter-conference rivalry in the NHL.

Yes, I use the term “rivalry” quite liberally, but considering the teams split consecutive Stanley Cup Finals before splitting two tight regular season contests in ’09-’10, there’s bound to be at least a little animosity, right?

Although Pittsburgh and Detroit are both coming off down years, not much has changed since they traded titles, including their respective places in each conference’s overall standings, and many of the stars from both Finals series still remain.  Each of them has something to play for Tuesday.

The Penguins are trying to leapfrog Philadelphia again in the Atlantic Division after getting 2011 off to a tough start. In Sidney Crosby’s extended absence, they rebounded nicely last week with equally impressive and equally important road wins over Montreal and Boston.  They’re holding onto fourth in the East, though the Habs, Caps, and Rangers aren’t far behind.

Meanwhile, Detroit is in a dogfight with Vancouver for the top spot in the West, while trying to boost its commanding lead over second-place Nashville in the Central Division.  But Detroit dropped two of three games last week, and nursing that lead might only get harder, as the injury bug that essentially grounded the Red Wings for much of last season has again reared its ugly head.

Oh, by the way, did we mention Dan Bylsma grew up in Detroit?

It should be a game most worthy of its national television audience…excuse me a minute…what’s that?

What?!  Did you just say this one isn’t on national television?!

Well, what are they doing instead?

Montreal and Buffalo?!  Surely you jest…

Nope.  Sorry.  Believe it or not, Canadiens-Sabres–not Penguins-Red Wings–will be the featured game on Versus tonight.

Please don’t take this the wrong way.  On an average hockey night in Pittsburgh, I’ll gladly take Steigy and Bob over Doc and Edzo, or, to give another example, tonight’s Versus broadcast duo, Sam Rosen and Billy Jaffe.  With all due respect, especially to those aforementioned who are friends of the station, the Penguins’ local broadcast crew simply knows the team better than any tandem of network outsiders ever could.

Furthermore, I’m all for showcasing the newfound parity in the NHL, part of which means giving casual fans a glimpse of divisional and geographic rivalries that tend to fly under those fans’ collective radar.  However, this is a classic case of the League missing the marketing boat, because the Pens and Wings have proven healthier than most for TV revenue.  Although I’m sure FSN ratings in both markets will be just fine this evening, tonight’s contest deserves a bigger audience than merely Pittsburgh and Detroit.

The national television schedule is conceived well in advance, and the Penguins’ most recent appearance on Versus was their home-ice loss to Boston last Monday.  It stands to reason this game was chosen largely because of the controversial on-ice incident that took place between Matt Cooke and Marc Savard during the previous campaign.  But as a businessman, on the relatively rare occasion that two teams in two of your consistently strongest markets hook up, Economics 101 should take precedent.

Besides, viewers who aren’t (yet) hardcore hockey fans–i.e.: exactly the kind of folks the NHL wants to and needs to attract–aren’t going to camp in front of HD sets to watch Cooke and/or Savard, and no message-sending has taken place since their controversial collision.  Therefore, if the network thought it was going to be cutting-edge by capturing something other than what ended up a 4-2 hockey game, it was a gross miscalculation.

Now hear this, people in suits who are paid to be intelligent forward thinkers.  Consider the following:

In the spring of 2008, when the teams met in the first of their two Stanley Cup Finals, the series, on the whole, dramatically reversed a longtime trend of declining Nielsen ratings for the event in the U.S.  The first and last games were among the most watched hockey games in this country during the last decade, and Game 3 outdrew an NBA playoff game in Detroit–a game that involved the Pistons.

In November 2008, when the Pens traveled to Detroit for their first meeting since Game 6 at the Igloo, and their first against prodigal son Marian Hossa, they skated to an improbable 7-6 come-from-behind victory in OT, their high-water mark before the Cup run, and Versus enjoyed its best single-game regular season ratings ever at the time.

In February 2009, when NBC was in Pittsburgh to watch Hossa counter-punch with a big goal in a shutout victory over the Pens, ratings for the network were up over 20 percent from February 2008.

In the spring of ’09, when the Pens avenged their Stanley Cup Final defeat in Motown, Game 7 was the most watched Finals game in the United States since 1973.

In the NHL Winter Classic, an event in which both teams have participated, American TV numbers were leaps and bounds above the norm in all three cases.

I’m no media executive, nor do I ever plan on becoming one, but if I’m Versus president Jamie Davis, and I want to increase the visibility of a network that is partially invisible in some NHL markets to begin with, I might be kicking myself through the five-hole right now.

Habs-Sabres could be an exciting game in its own right, but when it comes to boosting your bottom line, to borrow the radio adage, play the hits.  The hits are the hits for a reason.

On the other hand, it’s easy to say the timing of the national spotlight is impeccable, as the Penguins must again find a way to win without Crosby, who practically makes the world of televised hockey go ’round all by himself.  If anything, though, that just adds another interesting dimension to a game against a team that has already matched up well with the Pens over the years.  I want to see who steps up without Sid, and I also want to see who steps up on the Wings’ banged-up roster.

Somehow I don’t think I’m alone, either.

For more of the latest news and views on the Penguins, be sure to tune into “The Penalty Box with Tom Grimm,” Saturday mornings on SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan, and check out the “Puck Talk with Popchock” video blog on 937thefan.com!