Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.

TAMPA, Fla. - Doc Emrick plans to show up for work at the Stanley Cup Final regardless of who is playing, because he loves hockey and because, well, it's his job.

"Yeah, I'll be there," NBC's lead play-by-play man said Tuesday as he observed the Lightning's morning skate at Amalie Arena before Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.

The question is: How many viewers will join him?

With the Ducks leading the Blackhawks 3-2 in the Western Conference and the Lightning up 3-2 on the Rangers entering Tuesday night, NBC and the NHL were in danger of seeing a dream, ratings-rich, Original Six Final evaporate like ice on a Tampa sidewalk.

Let's just say Lightning vs. Ducks was not the ideal outcome from the point of view of people wearing suits in network and league offices -- whether or not they ever would admit that.

But the men whose job it is to call the games insisted there were no undesirable matchups among the final four teams.

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"One of the most exciting series we've had in 10 years was the first year on NBC," Emrick said. "It was Edmonton and Carolina. And those games were bizarre. They were wonderful and exciting, and I guess I stopped judging at that point.

"I understand how people that put together marketing things probably would have their opinion on this, but that Carolina-Edmonton series was just wacky and fun and it ended in a very dramatic game that took an empty-netter in the last minute to seal it up for Carolina. So I don't think it's bad at all.

"I can sure see why there'd be a romance about an Original Six matchup, but the quality of hockey and certainly the coaching staffs that we would be working with, with Bruce [Boudreau of the Ducks], who is just wonderful, and Jon [Cooper], there's no downer for us at all."

NBC analyst Pierre McGuire agreed, saying: "I'm so excited for the potential for any of the four teams in the Final. Look at the caliber of the games. Look at the caliber of the series. I mean, it's as advertised. I think when you look at it from the national perspective, obviously markets matter. But I think caliber of games matters, too.

"There are so many good stories on the Tampa side with the Triplets, with Steven Stamkos, with the development of Victor Hedman, with the goaltending of Ben Bishop, with the coaching of Jon Cooper. When people around the nation get to see these stories, that leads to huge future growth. I think it's fantastic.

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"I just want to help grow the game as much as possible, and I'm so excited about the potential . . . The question [about TV ratings] is more than fair. I'm just really excited about the potential for the sport."

The Lightning's 2004 Cup-winning series against the Flames was part of an era of matchups that were marketing challenges. After the lockout, the Hurricanes beat the Oilers, and then the Ducks beat the Senators.

But six of the past seven Finals have featured at least one Original Six team, and the one that didn't, in 2012, featured teams from the nation's biggest TV markets when the Kings beat the Devils after New Jersey ousted the Rangers in the conference finals.

The Rangers and Blackhawks nearly met last season, but the Blackhawks lost Game 7 of the conference finals at home to the Kings.

Hockey diehards certainly would watch a Final between the Ducks and Lightning. But Rangers-Blackhawks remains the gold standard of hockey matchups for maximizing an American audience.

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Emrick said NBC executives had not shared their preference with him, "but we're able to guess. On the other side of it is we could wind up with one whale of a series between these two. You'd have a big, bruising team that could skate and this one that can skate, and the good thing about it is that as we sit here, we don't know if we're going to get it at all.

"That's the fun part."