The Stanley Cup Playoffs begin Saturday, four days before the regular season ends, because that’s what happens when you play sports during a pandemic. Time and networks wait for nobody.
But it’s not the bizarre bit-by-bit rollout that is the real story here. True, the league needing to announce Game 1 of one series before the rest of the schedule is zany enough, and the Canadian division doesn’t actually end until Wednesday because Vancouver’s COVID-19 outbreak left them with six utterly unnecessary games to play, the results of which will not only determine the final order of the three non-playoff teams in the division, but also pay belated tribute to the disease that never ends. Just ask Corbin Burnes, proud non-vaxxer, or the New York Yankees.
Still, the playoffs happen Saturday because NBC’s swan song with the sport must begin on time, and they have the best series to unveil for their casual (read, not paying attention unless there’s fighting) audience—Tom Wilson v. Brad Marchand.
Oh, the rest of the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins will be there as a proper backdrop, but the league’s new designated thug and its longtime instigator penalty with feet will be the centerpiece of the game because Wilson’s largely unpunished work in the dismantling of the New York Rangers made hockey a national story for a couple of days, and because Marchand has been and remains the game’s pre-eminent mischief-maker. This, then, promises to be a delightful beginning for anyone who watches hockey for the line brawls and potential suspensions.
Not that we expect either Wilson or Marchand to square off against each other at any point. That would be too clean. But each will no doubt have a camera trained on him at all times (Wilson for sure), and the faint hint of Bruins play-by-play man Jack Edwards shrieking about injustice whether or not he has a microphone will be the tinkly piano soundtrack. NBC will much prefer that to, say, ‘Canes-Preds. Then again, NBC would much prefer another rerun of the National Dog Show to ‘Canes-Preds because it has always covered the NHL as a six-team league of Rangers, Red Wings, Bruins, Flyers, Penguins and Caps.
But there is something fitting about the network leading with two of the league’s elite miscreants given that this is its last time with the league. NBC is shrinking and moving its sports inventory behind its Peacock paywall, and its hockey coverage has largely been on the backs of its pertinent regional networks, which are are also due for the chop, and Keith Jones, their longest serving national analyst based both on his interpretive skills and being the only one of lengthy tenure who hasn’t said anything stupid about women. NBC will be left with the Olympics, if they ever happen again, the Premier League, which now features fan protests against their owners as part of their inventory, and some other stuff that includes wrestling because that’s never not a sign that old people control the remote.
But before we discuss NBC’s shrinking sports appetite (if we ever do), let’s keep an eye on Wilson-Marchand as the official start of the hilariously bastardized Stanley Cup playoffs. That is, if you can tear yourself away from the spectacular Flames-Canucks series in hell, which will potentially create as much bad blood just out of sheer pointless repetition. You just want to give this sport a hug … and then ragdoll it for good measure.