Having to squeeze in a heavy schedule into a compressed calendar, the NHL, for the first time since 1986, transitioned to a best-of-five series for the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. Thereafter, the league will shift back to its regular best-of-seven series.
The NHL set up two bubble sites, one in Toronto for the Eastern Conference teams and the other in Edmonton for the Western Conference franchises. So far, so good. The plan designed by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his team has kept players, coaches, and trainers healthy and safe.
Broadcast favorites like Eddie Olczyk, Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick and others are forced to adjust to the reality of calling these fast-paced, high-level games remotely. They have the challenge of scanning the 200 feet by 85 feet ice surface from a place where they never imagined, a video monitor.
At times, while working from his home studio in Michigan, Doc Emrick seemed to have some difficulty tracking the puck and players during the Edmonton Oilers (5 seed) – Chicago Blackhawks (12 seed) game. Partner Olczyk added analysis from NBC’s studio in Stamford, Connecticut. Inside-the-Glass commentator Pierre McGuire was the only member of the crew in Edmonton. One of the challenges for Doc was the limited angle from which he was seeing the ice in Michigan.
The NBC broadcast of Game 1 between the Pittsburgh Penguins (5 seed) and Montreal Canadiens (12 seed) was excellent. Yet, John Forslund, Mike Milbury and Brian Boucher had the advantage of working the game directly from Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.
With just three minutes left in the game, Pittsburgh’s Connor Sheary went wide left on a penalty shot that he was awarded after being interfered with on a breakaway. Halfway into the OT period, Montreal’s Jonathan Drouin missed a penalty shot of his own. Drouin lost control of the puck, and Milbury questioned if perhaps the ice played a role in Drouin’s mishandle. Despite an array of missed chances by both teams, the Canadiens’ Jeff Petry finished off the 3-2 upset with a wrist shot from the slot in OT.
Syracuse University alumnus, Mike Tirico, did a solid job hosting the pregame show. He demonstrated how the NHL cleverly installed video boards around the arena which showed Penguins and Canadiens enthusiasts rooting for their teams over an electronic screen. No fans in the stands doesn’t mean hockey aficionados are not sitting at home watching and cheering. Even Washington Capitals’ superstar Alex Ovechkin was depicted sitting in Scotiabank Arena patiently waiting for the game to begin. No better way for Ovechkin to spend his Saturday night than to scout his longtime nemesis, Sidney Crosby.
The Montreal-Pittsburgh primetime game on Saturday averaged a Total Audience Delivery (TAD) of 1.572 million viewers, making it the most-watched NHL game of the 2019-20 season, excluding the Winter Classic.
The TAD of 1.572 million viewers was up 46% vs. the 2019-20 NHL regular-season average on NBC (1.074 million).
Canadiens-Penguins is the most-watched game ever on NBC to feature a Canadian team (excluding Winter Classics and traditional playoff games).
Review of the Broadcasters
Pittsburgh vs. Montreal (Saturday, August 2, 2020)– John Forslund, Mike Milbury and Brian Boucher
- John Forslund and Mike Milbury emphasized numerous times how the key to Montreal staying in the game was for goaltender, Carey Price, to play out of his mind. The men discussed how Pittsburgh’s potent offensive lines, led by veterans Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, were a lot for the young Montreal Canadiens squad to handle. The Penguins showed their experience and ability to score after they overcame a 2-0 deficit in a matter of minutes. Forslund and Milbury stressed that the Canadiens were “just trying to survive” by the “hot hand” of Carey Price and had to take advantage of the few breaks they would be given (Nick Suzuki on the Canadiens 2nd goal). Forslund and Milbury realized how the Canadiens game plan was just to “stay defensive and play smart.” The team did not take any risky chances when the game was even or when they had the lead. Price was “swallowing pucks” and stayed square to the shot. NHL analyst, Brian Boucher, who was between the benches Inside-the-Glass, was also impressed with how the Canadiens’ younger players handled the playoff jitters.
- Forslund and Milbury built off each other’s comments well and never left one another or the fans hanging. Being together made the job a lot more doable. For the earlier game, Emrick, Olczyk and McGuire were all apart by hundreds of miles.
- Forslund and Milbury saw the puck with ease. The men claimed that with the way the rink was set up, the sight of the ice was as clear as can be. For example, on the Canadiens first goal, Forslund immediately pointed out that Jesperi Kotkaniemi was pushed before his glove tipped the puck into the net. While John and Mike’s commentary was for the most part succinct, and up to speed, they had a tendency at times to repeat what the other had already mentioned.
- When the Canadiens or Penguins had an offensive zone faceoff, NBC used the overhead camera angle when the ordinary on ice angle is definitely the way to go.
- The game also resumed late after a few commercials in the first period. The television rejoin didn’t occur until after the draw. Near the end of the 2nd period, the duo joked when speaking to Brian Boucher, who was sitting inside the glass between both benches. Forslund and Milbury chuckled and relayed “Hang in there Boucher, the period is almost over.” While the benefits of sitting between the benches at ice level far outweigh the detriments, it can’t be fun to be stuck inside a glass box for every period.
- Some of the advertising inventory at the NHL’s two sites, Edmonton and Toronto, belonged to the designated home team and as such, the number of sponsors weren’t uniform through the weekend.
- Forslund and Milbury spoke candidly about the condition of the ice surface at Scotiabank Arena. With it being late in the summer and with the rink never used for multiple games during the course of one day, the men pondered whether players would feel or notice the effect.
- One cannot imagine how it must feel for these professional hockey players to partake in games without fans in the stands. Toronto is attempting to ignite the players and capture the enthusiasm of devoted fans by blasting NHL-20 crowd noise, goal horns, and celebratory goal songs throughout Scotiabank. John Forslund and Mike Milbury praised the league for its ability to best recreate and parallel the real experience. Even with no fans in the arena watching, Milbury exclaimed that the “internal drive of a hockey player takes over, and there is no lack of organic joy that these players have for the game.”
- When the game was stopped and segued into a commercial break, the NHL on NBC’s familiar music sometimes sounded choppy.
- At times, Forslund and Milbury criticized the Canadiens for not being able to stay disciplined. One example is when the Penguins were given a 90-second, 5-on-3 power-play early in the 3rd. On another note, the men were impressed with how Montreal killed off the penalties.
- John and Mike openly opined that Evgeni Malkin was having a rough game. Malkin missed some chances on which he usually capitalizes. He missed the net with his shot and was not as smooth as he normally can be.
Given the challenges, the players, coaches and trainers are adapting nicely to bubble hockey in the summer heat. The remote and scattered broadcasters, too, are also playing the hand they’re dealt as well as possible.