NHL fans knew this would happen eventually.
The Stanley Cup Final had experienced four years of surging ratings on U.S. television, with series that became part of the national sports conversation despite not suckling at the ESPN teat.
The New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings have, thus far, broken that streak. Ratings have been down significantly from last postseason, and some of the numbers on NBC Sports Network have been among the lowest for a Final since the lockout.
The frustration for hockey fans is that the low ratings are an invitation for easy criticism from the expected corners of the sports media, who will ignore the gains of the previous seasons and make this dud the norm. (And who can't even get their facts straight; Game 1 was on cable? Really?)
So why hasn't the Final caught on? Awful Announcing had a piece that touched on a few topics; and here are a few more.
Here are five reasons why we think the Stanley Cup Final hasn't been a ratings winner for NBC and NBC Sports Network.
There Was No Pre-Sell
In the past four years, we've had Original Six franchises and Sidney Crosby (twice) and Stanley Cup droughts for historic sports cities. None of these factors apply to this series; yes, there are long-suffering Kings fans, but there's not a curious or sympathetic wing of casual fandom that'll seek out the Final because of them. They had Gretzky. They have the Lakers.
The biggest problem for the NHL: Who were these teams?
A No. 6 seed in the East that no one expected to be in the Final, yet is less than 10 years removed from its last championship. (Not to mention one the media has conditioned casual fans to associate with tedium.)
On the other side, we had a No. 8 seed that everyone knew wasn't really a No. 8 seed, and a team that didn't have a considerable bandwagon. Sports' easiest sells are heroes vs. villains and juggernauts vs. underdogs. Neither of these franchises fit that bill for a national audience.
Both of these teams could have used a different dance partner.
The Games Have Been Completely Uneventful
If you don't have a strong narrative entering the Final, you hope one develops. The Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins had a few storylines last season. Then the biting happened. Then the Aaron Rome hit happened. Then there were the tire-pumping comments and the contentious games in Boston. It took an interesting series and made it must-see.
There's no hate between the Devils and Kings. There's been no moment of controversy, outside of a puck that may or may not have been under Marty Brodeur's pad for too long. No Shanabans. Nothing.
Plus — and maybe this changes if the Devils win Game 5 — the Kings' 3-0 start to the series really sapped much of the drama from it.
The Play Hasn't Been Compelling
At the end of the day, it's still about the product. And the gameplay in these first four games has been average at best, boring at worst. The first two games were repellant. The third was a bit more exciting, and the fourth really picked up steam in the third period.
Seriously, what's the signature highlight of this series? The Doughty goal? There hasn't been that moment that ends up on every nightly broadcast yet.
If hockey fans have a problem with the entertainment level in this defense-fest, and they do, you think casual fans are going to stick around after sampling?
The NBA Lockout
Yes, the Kings benefited from the Lakers and Clippers bowing out. But overall, the NBA's been a problem for the NHL.
The network also knew it would be hurt going against the NBA's conference finals most nights. Normally the finals of the NBA and NHL alternate days. Not so in this lockout-delayed basketball season.
As we noted earlier, this year's Final just isn't that compelling from a gameplay or personality perspective. The NBA, on the other hand, has been the opposite in its conference championship rounds. It's dominated the national conversation, limiting the already limited chatter about the Stanley Cup Final.
Going up against Game 7 between the Celtics and Heat on Saturday night will underscore all of this.
Finally … Hockey Fans
ESPN executive Vince Doria wasn't completely incorrect when he said that "it's a sport that engenders a very passionate local following."
Local viewership has carried the NHL ratings nationally for years. As teams are eliminated, apathy sets in with fan bases that aren't still involved with the playoffs. This isn't helped by the tournament pushing into the second week of June, where the only ice is found in our coolers.
Seriously, how many of your hockey friends that don't have loyalty to either side are making time for this series? And how many of them are the first to gripe when ESPN tries to minimize the sport's impact?
If the Devils continue to rally, there's still time to salvage this series. Obviously, their quest isn't just for the Cup but to become the second team to ever pull off a Final victory after a 0-3 hole. Should they push it to six or seven, the hockey fans will come back — what about the casuals?