Commentary

Will NHL benefit from these playoffs?

Updated: June 30, 2009, 5:44 PM ET
By Damien Cox | Special to ESPN.com

It was so close to perfect that it would have been greedy to ask for more.

How much better could the second round of the NHL playoffs have been? Not much, particularly with the overall quality of play so outstanding and with most games played at a blistering pace and ferocious level of competition.

To anyone who believes this league was better 10 years ago, or 30 years ago, well, go watch one of the games from those days, then compare it to what we saw between the Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks, or between Anaheim and Detroit in what, at least in the short term, has replaced the Detroit-Colorado matchup as the best rivalry in the Western Conference.

Perfect, though? Not quite.

If you really want to be picky, you'd have to note that although the NHL came very, very close to having all four second-round series go the seven-game limit, it didn't quite happen. Chicago ended Vancouver's season in six contests, a game that felt in many ways like a do-or-die, seventh-game scenario, but wasn't.

The other three series did go to Game 7, which meant it was the first time in 23 years three of the conference semifinals went to seven games and the other lasted six.

The Washington-Pittsburgh series, which might have been the best of them all, did go sour in the deciding game, with the Penguins scoring early and often to make it a noncontest by the second period. It was a letdown to be sure, given that the Sidney Crosby versus Alex Ovechkin showcase had delivered so much in the first six games that few would have guessed Game 7 would be a dud.

But a dud it was.

Other nitpicking? Well, the winning goal in the Wings-Ducks series was a dicey one, but perhaps was payback for a similar one earlier in the series that went against Detroit. In Boston, Carolina won Game 7 in overtime, only the 31st time a team has done that; however, having Scott Walker score the goal -- the same Walker who should have been suspended for several games after sucker punching Boston's Aaron Ward in the face in the final moments of Game 5 but inexplicably wasn't -- left that series with a slight tinge of unfairness.

In a larger sense, the loss of the Boston market was unfortunate, and surely a Bruins-Penguins matchup in the Eastern Conference finals would have attracted more eyeballs and more interest than one between Pittsburgh and Carolina. Having three Original Six teams in the final four, and three large TV markets, would have been a home run for the NHL.

Add all this up, of course, and you realize just how outstanding the four second-round series were because none of these sour notes was an element that shamed the game, robbed the game of integrity or otherwise left the league in an unflattering light.

And perfection isn't easily attainable.

The larger question, needless to say, is how much the NHL benefited from having its most competitive second round in almost a quarter century. Well, hard to say. This was, don't forget, the time of year when commissioner Gary Bettman suggested the league might start to feel the weight of the North American economic crisis, but that didn't seem to be the case. Fans in all eight cities seemed eager to gobble up tickets at playoff prices, and even Anaheim, which failed to sell out in the first round against San Jose, picked it up in the second round.

Detroit, a city with 22 percent unemployment in some areas, had empty seats in last season's playoffs, but has rebounded this spring and sold out Game 7 against Anaheim with 20,066 fans.

Television, of course, is always a barometer, more so in the United States than in Canada, where the interest levels usually remain high for the country's national pastime. Both Versus and NBC reported significant increases in viewership for national telecasts, with NBC up more than 14 percent compared with last year. Versus was up 30 percent for its conference semifinals coverage, although it still draws significantly less than what ESPN was garnering back in 2004, the last year ESPN had NHL television rights.

Locally, Pittsburgh and Chicago reported significant viewership increases on their regional sports networks. For the Hawks' clinching victory over Vancouver, the regional carrier reported its highest rating ever for a Chicago NHL playoff game.

The Hawks, of course, are just getting rolling after opting not to telecast local games for years. Their brigade of bright young stars that includes Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brent Seabrook and Dustin Byfuglien, is really just being introduced to the Windy City's sporting conscience, and the upcoming battle with the Red Wings can only further ingrain those athletes in Chicago's very crowded sporting culture.

Outside of that, well, who knows? In fact, the ongoing bankruptcy battle over the future of the Phoenix Coyotes offers an instructive backdrop to these NHL playoffs, for although the quality of play has been undeniably high, if a tad vicious at times, there are still those who argue that the league remains stubbornly regional in nature and thus is wasting its time keeping teams in certain markets as part of a larger U.S. footprint.

Clearly, a key element in the determined effort by Bettman's administration to keep the Coyotes in the desert is to keep alive the hope that establishing roots in significant TV markets -- Phoenix is No. 15 -- will one day pay off. If the Yotes aren't there, it becomes more difficult to generate interest even when superstars such as Crosby and Ovechkin collide in a playoff series.

Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie, meanwhile, wants to move the Coyotes to Hamilton, Ontario, and part of his argument to an Arizona bankruptcy court next week will be that his $212 million offer for the franchise is well above market value given the inability of the team to generate revenues in that market and the overall depressed state of the Arizona economy.

Other bonfires are burning in cities such as Tampa Bay and Atlanta, to name just two, and although franchises in those cities clearly would benefit from a more lucrative U.S. network television package, it stretches logic to imagine they are aided these days by the fact the Stanley Cup playoffs, particularly the second round, have been so good.

Still, it sure can't hurt. Moreover, the NHL is populated these days by the largest collection of young stars it has boasted in years, maybe ever, and many are still active participants in the postseason. In the East, Carolina has Eric Staal and goalie Cam Ward, and Pittsburgh has Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and Jordan Staal, brother of Eric. Brother versus brother isn't a bad storyline, particularly with the North-South context of this series.

Chicago, meanwhile, is sort of Pittsburgh West, a team that was down for years but clearly benefited through the careful stockpiling of young players just coming into their own. The Hawks not only are talented but also play a high-risk, physical brand of hockey that is highly entertaining.

Then, there are the Wings, the NHL's most skillful team and defending champions, a team that boasts MVP finalist Pavel Datsyuk, center Henrik Zetterberg and peerless Nicklas Lidstrom on defense. The Hawks got past Calgary in the first round largely by chirping at the veteran Flames and showing them no respect, and you can expect that approach isn't going to change now.

Helpfully, goal scoring is flourishing in these playoffs right now, with the four deciding games in the conference semifinals averaging 8.0 combined goals, led by the wild 7-5 shootout between the Hawks and Canucks. There have been comebacks and lead changes aplenty throughout.

The 27 second-round games, in general, showcased an excellent brand of the sport, albeit with some controversy and some borderline physicality, such as Walker's unnecessary fist to Ward's face and an ugly hit by Anaheim's Mike Brown early in that series that left Detroit's Jiri Hudler lying on the ice in a pool of blood.

But it's a high-speed sport that sometimes seems akin to watching a science project featuring electrons colliding in a high-speed chamber, and you can only get so much artistry in a sport moving that fast. Moreover, the heavy physical toll of the playoffs seems to be mounting, with every team that's eliminated reporting significant players who were competing with injuries that would have kept them out of regular-season play.

Is it all growing the game and expanding its appeal? Big cities, big stars and thrilling competition might just catch on if the NHL can keep up the momentum established in the past two weeks.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular hockey contributor to ESPN.com. In this role, he writes numerous columns on the NHL.