Friday May 1st, 2009

1. Contrary to the certainty of conspiracy theorists across the land, Gary Bettman and his nefarious band of henchmen are not pulling strings to ensure a win for either Pittsburgh or Washington on Saturday. You can bet, however, that they're crossing their fingers for a specific result -- not so much an entertaining match featuring highlight reel moments from both Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. They're just praying that the game ends in regulation.

Game 1 starts at 1 PM Eastern on NBC. If it goes 60 minutes, no worries. Even a taste of overtime wouldn't be a problem . . . as long as a winner is determined in the first extra frame. If it goes beyond the 80-minute mark, that's where the horse flop hits the fan. And if it does, shame on the league.

NBC's Saturday broadcast plan also includes the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby at 5 PM. Great for them. Trouble for us.

It doesn't take a long memory (so I'm covered) to recall that the network chose to break away from an exciting overtime playoff duel for pre-race coverage of the Preakness Stakes back in 2007, leaving viewers of the Buffalo-Ottawa Eastern Conference Finals scrambling to find the game's conclusion on Versus.

Lesson learned? Not quite.

That 1 PM start doesn't leave Saturday's game broadcast with a lot of wiggle room. If it goes to a single OT period, NBC plans to stay with it. If it goes beyond that, the game will be kicked over to the league's cable partner Versus, except in the Washington and Pittsburgh markets.

Don't blame NBC if it happens. They've got to follow the money. The Derby is a cash machine for the network, a huge gambling event (take note of that aspect of sporting interest, NHL) that guarantees tens of millions of eyeballs. As excited as we may be about the Pens and Caps, this game just doesn't have the same juice on the national sporting scene. It's a lousy way to be reminded of that fact, but it is what it is.

Seems like the NHL could have mitigated the potential for another embarrassing bump by moving the game up to a noon start. Not a major concession on the front end considering the ramifications on the back end. That's something to remember if we're left scrambling for the remote, or a local watering hole with Versus on tap, come 5 PM.

2. There's plenty of talk about how the Boston-Carolina series could come down to a battle between Tim Thomas and Cam Ward, or Zdeno Chara against Eric Staal. But the real indicator of how this thing will go can be gleaned from seeing which team establishes its style of play in the early going.

For Boston, that means generating an aggressive forecheck that pins Carolina's defense in its own zone. Watch for Milan Lucic, Blake Wheeler and Patrice Bergeron to force the play down low, creating turnovers and setting up for chances on the cycle. If the 'Canes have their way, you'll see them activating their defense. They're at their most successful when they're aggressive in joining the rush, so watch for Anton Babchuk and Joni Pitkanen using their speed in the neutral zone to jump into the play.

3. The Detroit Free Press is reporting that the Red Wings will be without Brian Rafalski for their opener due to a -- surprise! -- undisclosed day-to-day injury. Jonathan Ericsson will skate in his place on the top pairing alongside Nicklas Lidstrom, with Chris Chelios stepping in on the third pair.

An advantage for the Ducks? Has to be, simply because Rafalski is such a smooth, steady presence both five-on-five and on Detroit's bread-and-butter power play. But don't underestimate Ericsson. The rookie doesn't have Rafalski's resume, but he brings a big, physical presence that might make him better suited for the task of slowing down Anaheim's crease-crashing top line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan.

Where it could hurt the Wings is when that third unit is out. Ericsson and Brett Lebda made for a reliable depth pairing. Chelios hasn't played since April 12 and all the practice time in the world won't scrape off that rust, so he's a downgrade at the position. The question is: can Anaheim make hay against them?

Getzlaf's unit accounted for half the Ducks' goals in the first round, so secondary scoring is a concern coming into the series. With Teemu Selanne's line likely to face Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall, it'll be up to the third- and fourth-liners like Rob Niedermayer, Erik Christensen and Mike Brown to come up with a little more.

While the thought of losing Rafalski -- and not knowing for how long -- is worrisome, Detroit fans can at least take solace in Mike Babcock having the last change for Games 1 and 2, which gives him a chance to prevent unfavorable match-ups for Chelios and Lebda.

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