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Playoffs 2004

National audience waiting for more

By JOHN C. COTEY
Published April 8, 2004

If it was the New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers or New Jersey, being the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference would invoke visions of the Stanley Cup. Odds would be laid, projections made and the target fastened to the backs of the players.

But it seems awfully quiet these days when it comes to the Lightning, which has captured the heart of Tampa Bay but still has some work to do nationally.

Don't take it personally, says ESPN analyst Bill Clement. But nothing, especially this year, is a sure thing.

"There's 10 teams that have a legitimate chance to win the Stanley Cup," Clement said. "If Tampa Bay was clearly better than everyone, everyone would be talking about them. But there's a great number of teams that are all capable of winning this thing."

Clement has seen too many high seeds sink in the first-round murk. And he said it takes time for a team to command playoff respect.

In the conference, the Lightning has gone from 12th in points in 2001-2002 to fifth last year to first this season. But until it breaks through to the Stanley Cup final, don't expect title buzz.

"Let's see what happens in the first round," Clement said. "Then see."

Clement does see the possibilities of Lightning fever, if the team can stay in the playoffs long enough. Despite lacking any of the sport's huge names, there is much to like about the team. Namely, while teams jettison salaries and star players and the rosters in the East are seemingly ever-changing, the Lightning has a homegrown feel.

"The Lightning has been together longer than any team in the East, and that's good," he said. "Change is traumatic to most humans, and teams are no exception. You have to adjust. But the Lightning has had less change than anyone in the East."

And more luck. Clement gives much credit to general manager Jay Feaster and coach John Tortorella but says the team should count its blessings.

"They haven't had any major injuries; there's a guardian angel watching over them," he said. "To stay that healthy, I can't remember ever a team going through a season without serious injuries. I almost think they might be living on borrowed time. But if (the luck holds out), they are a definite threat to win the Stanley Cup. If not, we'll see what they are made of."

HOCKEY TOWN?: The Tampa Bay market's hockey ratings for the national ABC games have been dismal (40th out of 55 markets), and the ESPN offerings have drawn even fewer viewers.

But that doesn't necessarily mean the area is void of hockey fans, says Sunshine Network play-by-play announcer Rick Peckham.

"What we see is tremendous enthusiasm in this market," he said. "It's the buzz around town.

"I would say it's a hockey town. You look at New Jersey, the defending champions, and they are having trouble filling their place. They're not having that problem here. Everywhere you go, it seems to be the talk of the town."

PUCK BUFFET: ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC will do up to 76 NHL playoff games over 62 days. What's more amazing about that? The 72 games? Or the fact the NHL postseason takes 62 days?

END OF THE LINE?: The final game in the Stanley Cup final could be the final hockey game for a while, but even if a lockout is avoided it appears the NHL could disappear from broadcast television completely.

ESPN and the NHL will need to hammer out a new television agreement, but the price almost has to drop from the current $120-million annually due to poor ratings. The average this season for ABC's games was a 1.1 rating, and ESPN/ESPN2's numbers were lower.

According to the Toronto Globe and Mail, here's a possibility: ABC will no longer carry NHL games. Because of labor uncertainty, ESPN will negotiate a one-year deal, but limit NHL regular-season telecasts to ESPN2. The postseason would be aired on ESPN.

That would be a tough pill for the NHL to swallow.

[Last modified April 7, 2004, 11:23:20]

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