Thursday May 28th, 2009

A stroll down memory lane . . .

The year is 1955. Canadiens fans riot outside the Forum when NHL President Clarence Campbell suspends Maurice Richard. Rosa Parks is arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. The Mickey Mouse Club premiers on ABC-TV. The NHL holds back-to-back games during the Detroit-Montreal Stanley Cup Final.

Now further to the subject of Mickey Mouse . . .

After a 54-year hiatus -- a five-plus-decade interregnum in which the NHL presumably thought that playing on consecutive days in the Stanley Cup Final was a crummy idea -- back-to-back games are, well, back. The defending champion Red Wings and the perhaps impending champion Penguins play Game 1 on Saturday and -- pause for air -- Game 2 on Sunday.

There are people inured to the charms of Detroit who have wanted to beat a retreat from that noble city, but the NHL is moving quicker here than a summer thunderstorm. The Red Wings and Penguins then will play Game 3 on Tuesday in Pittsburgh. Unless my math is off, that represents three games in four days, a haste that previously has been on display in the final only by Paul Coffey on the rush and sportswriters battling the twin demons of deadlines and last call.

Goodness, three games in four days. If you didn't know better, you might have guessed this was January in the Southeast Division.

While the NHL deserves moderate applause for taking smelling salts and reversing its original lunatic announcement that the final would start June 5 if either conference final went beyond four games -- hockey would have been harder to find than D.B. Cooper if it had disappeared for more than a week at this time of year -- the decision to hustle through the first two games to suit NBC's tastes is misguided.

The network pays the NHL in rights fees exactly the number of combined playoff wins by Montreal and St. Louis this spring -- yes, zero -- but it has a disproportionately loud voice in scheduling the league's showcase event. For the niche NHL, NBC represents exposure. (The network is televising Games 1 and 2, then 5 through 7 while Games 3 and 4 are on Versus, the league's subterranean cable partner.) The suspicion is that if NBC, which has not re-upped beyond this year, wanted the NHL to paint the crease area lavender instead of blue, Commissioner Gary Bettman would send out a minion with a watercolor set.

Like the old joke about Los Angeles Kings fans, the games start whenever NBC can get there.

The days when the best-of-five first round began with four matches in five nights are miles back in the rearview mirror. The pace is more measured now, properly so. There are times in the early rounds of the playoffs when back-to-backs are unavoidable because of building availability.

This spring, the Penguins and Capitals were forced into back-to-back games in different cities and three-in-four nights because of a Yanni concert. (Capitals general manager George McPhee hates Yanni.) The Penguins survived the interruption of the natural playoff rhythm, of course, and won a swell seven-game series. Now the Penguins and Red Wings, who will have two days off before Games 6 and 7, will survive because that is what they do. Like a lot of us, they are just happy to be here.

But by agreeing to play two straight and three in four, the NHL has also tipped the competitive edge to the healthier Penguins. The only significant injured Penguin is defenseman Sergei Gonchar; a surgeon, not rest, is going to heal his damaged knee. Meanwhile, Detroit has been decimated, clinching Game 5 against Chicago without stars Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and regulars Kris Draper and Jonathan Ericsson because of injuries sustained during that conference final.

After announcing that the last possible date of a final would be June 15 (and later amending that to June 16), the calendar boys in the NHL now have guaranteed a wrap by June 12, which is late, but not absurd. But barreling through the first two games is not worth the deleterious effect it might have on the play and the players.

Back-to-backs are for home runs, not the Stanley Cup Final. While the NHL must be mindful of its broadcast partners' desires, like a peacock it should stand on its own two legs.

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