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Blackhawks-Lightning in Stanley Cup a good but not great pairing for hockey and TV markets

Chicago Blackhawks center Brad Richards defends the puck

Chicago Blackhawks center Brad Richards defends the puck against Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Nikita Nesterov during the third period on Friday, Feb. 27, 2015, in Tampa, Fla. Credit: AP

The Rangers and Blackhawks, the NHL's and NBC's dream ratings date, continue to narrowly miss running into one another, as if this were the first act of a corny romantic comedy.

Last season, the Chicago Blackhawks lost in Game 7 of the Western Conference final and the Rangers went on to the Stanley Cup Final without them, settling for the Los Angeles Kings.

This season, the Rangers lost in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final and the Blackhawks went on to the Cup Final without them, settling for the Lightning in a series that begins in Tampa Wednesday night.

Not that there's anything wrong with that for avid hockey fans, but a Rangers victory clearly would have been better not only for Rangers fans but for the NHL and NBC in their attempt to attract casual viewers.

Then again, half of a dream Final is better than none at all.

Had the Ducks beaten the Blackhawks in Anaheim Saturday, the ratings for the championship round would have been nightmarish.

How important is the hockey-mad Chicago market? Check this out: Game 7 averaged an astounding 26.6 percent of homes in the Chicago area on NBC. It averaged 3.9 percent in the L.A. market.

Nationally, the game averaged 4.6 million viewers, the most for a non-Cup Final game in records that go back to 1994.

It's true there are more Kings fans than Ducks fans in the L.A. area, but even with that, last year's Final would have rated far more highly in Chicago than it did in Los Angeles.

Anyway, this is the Final we have, and while the audience in New York will be a fraction of what it would have been with the Rangers in it, there is plenty of appeal for hockey diehards.

(For the record, Game 7 of the Lightning-Rangers series averaged 10.3 percent of homes in the New York area, the highest ever for a Rangers game on NBCSN, including Games 3 and 4 of last year's Final.)

As we saw in the Eastern Conference final, Tampa Bay is an exciting, offensive-minded team - at least when it is not going into a defensive shell to protect goaltender Ben Bishop, as it did in Games 5 and 7 against the Blueshirts.

"We know people are going to come to watch because of Chicago, and they are going to fall in love with this Tampa team that has so much talent and so much skill," NBC executive producer Sam Flood said.

Games 1, 2, 5, 6 and 7 will be shown on NBC and Games 3 and 4 on NBCSN, all with Doc Emrick on play-by-play and all but one with Ed Olczyk beside him as the analyst.

"Even though we don't play favorites, we don't cheer for one team or the other, the only thing I cheer for is that whoever wins is at home, because the celebration is so much more magnificent when a home team wins it," Emrick said on a conference call with reporters.

Olczyk will skip Game 2 so he can jump in on NBC's Belmont Stakes coverage. Had the Rangers been hosting Game 2 Saturday, he would have attempted to cover both. That no longer is an option, obviously.

"If either one of those goaltenders are average throughout this series, per game average, we've got a chance to see 6-5 hockey," Olczyk said. "Both of these teams can light it up. Both these teams play a similar style as Sam had touched on a little bit earlier."

Pierre McGuire will fill his usual role as the between-the-glass reporter/analyst.

"Well, to me, it's about the road traveled and the road traveled for Tampa was not easy," McGuire said. "You think about this is a team in a non-traditional hockey market that, yes, won Stanley Cup back in 2004; but beating three original teams to get to the Stanley Cup final is huge news."

NBCSN will have a 90-minute pregame show starting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday hosted by Liam McHugh, who grew up on Long Island.

"We are really privileged to have these two teams together," Emrick said. "It's going to be a track meet."

New York Sports