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NBC Sports Group, with a Canadian assist, skates into Stanley Cup Playoffs with ratings edge

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NBC Sports Group, with a Canadian assist, skates into Stanley Cup Playoffs with ratings edge

Thepuck dropped last night on the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs and the expansivecoverage by Comcast Corp.'sNBC Sports Group of the tourney that will culminate with the captain of thewinning team hoisting the famous trophy in June.

Carryingregular-season ratings momentum and perhaps an assist from north of the border,NBC Sports Group, which holds U.S. NHL rights through a , began itsplayoff presentation with a trio of contests: Detroit heading south to face off2015 finalist Tampa Bay on NBCSN(US); the New York Rangers visiting Pittsburgh on ; and thedefending-champion Chicago trekking to St. Louis on NBCSN.

Thosetelecasts were part of schedule that features tons of studio coverage — on mostnights during the opening round, NBC Sports Group will produce two versions of "NHLLive," one for NBCSN and one for USA/CNBC (US) — and up to 105 contests. In additionto NBCSN and USA, games will also air on the financial network and .

Thebroadcaster is scheduled to air up to nine prime-time games, including itsfirst NHL playoff telecasts immediately leading out from the Kentucky Derby onMay 7 and the Preakness Stakes on May 21. The Peacock network could televise asmany as five Stanley Cup Final matchups, with NBCSN in line for a pair.

TheNHL skates into the 2016 playoffs following the most watched, full regularseason in NBCSN history and the most viewed on cable since the 1993-94campaign. Buoyed by its "Wednesday Night Rivalry" and "SundayNight Hockey" franchises, NBCSN averaged378,000 viewers over 94 games during the 2015-16 campaign, up 8% from 349,000over 91 telecasts the prior season and the network's previous record of 351,000set during the 2013-14 season. This campaign was the most watched full NHLregular season on cable since the 1993-94 season, when and averaged 474,000watchers over 33 games.

Forits part, NBC averaged 1.545 million viewers over 11 games, 6% above the 1.457million watchers for 13 games last season

Acrossall 105 NHL regular-season games on NBC and NBCSN, the networks netted 503,000viewers in 2015-16, up 2% from the 491,000 average for 104 games in 2014-15.

Withthe face-off of the 2016 postseason, it's instructive to look back to the 2015tourney, when five Canadian teams — Ottawa, Calgary, Winnipeg, Vancouver andMontreal — made the playoffs, including two that advanced to the second round.This year, Canada was shut out from Lord Stanley's competition.

That,in theory, should provide NBC Sports Group with a ratings advantage: doesn't tallyviewers who reside north of the border. Of course, the legacy of the Canadians— Montreal is not only a member of the Original Six, but the circuit'sstandard-bearer with a record 24 Stanley Cups — and their absence should not beoverlooked. Les Habitants certainly have amassed their share of statesidelovers, loathers — and watchers — over the years.

"Asa hockey fan, it's never nice or great seeing the Canadian teams out of theplayoffs," said "NHL Live" studio analyst and former NHL starJeremy Roenick on an April 11 conference call with the press. "They'repassionate about it up there. I'm sure there is a lot of mourning across Canadabecause there are no Canadian teams vying for the Cup this year."

Executiveproducer Sam Flood said borders don't matter as much as the duration of theon-ice battles.

"Themost important thing is the length of the series. The more six- and seven-gameseries, the more people watch. If we get a bunch of four-and-outs, we'd ratherhave Canadian teams. All we care about is length of series … and we like thealternate teams to win. So, the odd games [are] won by one team, the even teams[are] won by the other. And then in Game 7, have at it, and go to at least oneovertime and we'll be happy."

Floodis right. Competition and the length of series matter greatly.

Sodo the matchups and storylines. Can Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals,the Presidents' Trophy winner as the team with the best record in the league,finally make a deep playoff run? If the Penguins get by the Rangers — SidneyCrosby's crew has been eliminated by 'King'Henrik Lundqvist and his men the past two seasons — they could battlethe Caps, who must ice the Philadelphia Flyers in an intriguing first-roundseries.

Inthe Western Conference, some, like Roenick, believe Lindy Ruff's Dallas Starsare poised to make a deep push. And what about the Blackhawks, who are lookingto mute the St. Louis Blues in the first round? That perhaps could propelChicago, and Patrick Kane, the first American to lead the league in scoring, tostart a run toward lifting a fourth Cup in seven years.

Whateverthe actual on-ice denouement, NBC Sports Group has certain Nielsen legacies tomeasure up to. The 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs averaged 1.43 million viewersacross NBC, NBCSN, CNBC and USA over 88 telecasts. That ranked as thethird-most-watched postseason in 18 years, behind the 1.52 million viewers over57 games on FOX (US)and ESPN in 1997 and just behind NBC Sports Group's 1.47 million in 2013 and1.45 million in 2014.

Asfor last year's Blackhawks-Lightning Stanley Cup Final matchup, the six-gameseries played before 5.5 million watchers on average, the secondmost on record, behind the 5.75 million for the 2013 championship won byChicago in six games over Boston (alas, the Bruins have missed the postseasonfor a second consecutive year). Chicago-Tampa Bay grew 11% from the 5 millionviewers in 2014, when the Los Angeles Kings defeated the Rangers in five games.