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Isles and NHL playoff schedule a wild ride for broadcasters Brendan Burke and A.J. Mleczko

Brendan Burke, left, and A.J. Mleczko in the

Brendan Burke, left, and A.J. Mleczko in the NBC Sports studio in Stamford, Connecticut, to broadcast NHL playoff games on Aug. 6, 2020. Credit: Brendan Burke

The early part of the NHL playoffs normally is a blur of games and cross-continent travel for announcers who do double duty for local teams and for NBC’s national coverage.

But like everything else in this COVID-19 season, that routine has been turned inside out in 2020.

Take Brendan Burke and A.J. Mleczko, the Islanders’ play-by-play person and studio analyst on MSG+.

The travel part of their playoff jobs has been reduced from long plane rides to short drives from MSG’s Midtown Manhattan studios to NBC’s Stamford, Connecticut, studios.

But the hockey part is as hectic as ever. As of Monday, Burke had called at least one game involving 17 of the 24 teams that qualified for the NHL postseason.

When the Islanders played the Capitals on MSG+ in Game 4 on Tuesday night, he will have called at least one game in 14 of 18 days this month for MSG+, NBC or Westwood One radio — four for NBC with Mleczko as his analyst.

Not that either is complaining.

“Part of the challenge, maybe perhaps part of the fun, is not really knowing what each day, each game, each series is going to bring me,” Mleczko said. “It’s partly as a fan, because when I’m not working, I’m so thrilled that hockey is back, live sports are back.”

Burke and Mleczko mostly have worked Western Conference games for NBC. Initially the network had no play-by-play announcer on site in Edmonton, until Rangers radio announcer Kenny Albert was sent there after the Rangers were eliminated.

That has meant a monumental amount of prep work, often with little notice.

“It’s been a challenge, just because the schedule comes out in pieces with NBC, so it’s not like I knew what my schedule would be in July and had the month, or four months off, to prepare for these specific teams,” Burke said. “So it’s kind of been prepping on the fly.”

Adding to the challenge is that it is more difficult calling a game off a monitor than in person. Burke and game analyst Butch Goring have done so remarkably seamlessly, but it is tougher than it looks.

“I love all of the different made-for-TV adjustments they’ve done for these events,” Burke said, “but sometimes the fancy cameras are really hard to call a game off of.”

That includes both overly wide shots, such as the “jib cam” being used in Toronto, and overly close-in shots.

“Sometimes they’ll hold a tight shot a little longer than I would prefer while the puck is in play and it just makes it really hard,” Burke said.

He also finds himself unable to identify for viewers details such as all the players on the ice before a faceoff.

“I’m just getting an artsy, tight shot of Mat Barzal’s face,” Burke said. “So I’m lacking information I normally would have before the puck drops.”

Since television provides a limited picture of the wider action, Mleczko often is unable to see how a play developed.

"The hard thing for me as an analyst is I can’t choose what I look at,” she said.

But all of it beats the alternative everyone lived through in the spring, which was no games at all.

“All of us would prefer to travel,” Mleczko said. “It’s far easier to call games on site as opposed to from a monitor. But the silver lining is that NBC can mix and match and juggle people around.”

Mleczko, who lives in Massachusetts, has been home for parts of two days this month. On Sunday, she left her hotel in Stamford at 8 a.m., attended a meeting at 10 in Manhattan in advance of the noon start for Game 3 of the Islanders-Capitals series, then was back in Stamford around 5 before calling a 6:30 p.m. game there.

The fact the Islanders went into overtime “gave me a little heartburn,” she said.  “Luckily, Mat Barzal ended it early so I could do the postgame show and hit the road.”

Burke has called early Islanders games in New York and late games in Connecticut on the same day. The one time he felt some angst was when he had a noon game in New York and a 6:30 game in Stamford on a Friday, which brought added traffic challenges.

Mleczko worked a 10:30 p.m. game in Stamford then had to be in Manhattan for a noon game the next day.

“When I broadcast, I reach back to my days as an athlete and I have a rhythm where I get a nap and a pregame meal and all those things,” said Mleczko, who played at Harvard and for the U.S. national team. “A couple of days I was a little cranky when I couldn’t get my nap.”

MSG will not carry games after the first round, but Burke and Mleczko likely would be involved in the network’s non-game Islanders coverage if they advance. Neither is sure of their role on NBC in the second round.

“As much as we can all get frustrated by little glitches and things that go wrong or audio glitches or whatever it may be,” Mleczko said, “at the end of the day it’s pretty amazing that we’re technologically advanced enough to be able to pull off what we’re pulling off to broadcast hockey from the bubbles.”

Said Burke, “I’m somewhat surprised at how not-awkward it is. You try to adjust and forget about everything else and just immerse yourself in the moment. I felt going in this is going to be hard to give it the same energy I would give it as if I was in the arena. And it really hasn’t been that hard.”

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