Round 1 Of NHL Playoffs Ends With Dramatic Win

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On Wednesday night, the top-seeded Washington Capitals were eliminated by the Montreal Canadiens in a deciding seventh game. Michele Norris talks to sports commentator Stefan Fatsis, who was at the game.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The first round of the National Hockey League playoffs ended in dramatic fashion last night when the top-seeded Washington Capitals were eliminated by the Montreal Canadiens in a deciding seventh game. Our regular sports commentator, Stefan Fatsis, was at the game and he joins us now. Stefan, Washington has really been a football and a basketball town for years, but the Caps have built a passionate fan base. You saw that last night. And it must have been so crushing to be out there in the stands.

Mr. STEFAN FATSIS (Sports Writer): It was. I mean, it was a great environment, because there is nothing like playoff hockey - no fights, fewer penalties, really high intensity. There were more than 18,000 screaming fans at the Verizon Center here in D.C., all dressed in red, it was a red-out. And the Caps were confident. I mean, they had amassed the most points in the NHL in the regular season. They have this explosive offense that scored 45 more goals than any other team. And with their superstar, Alex Ovechkin, they had legitimate hopes for the city's first sports championship since 1992.

But there was some concern last night. The Caps came into the game having squandered a three games-to-one lead against Montreal. Fans were nervous and the team in this game was tactically outsmarted.

NORRIS: Yeah, the fans, you felt like they could almost taste it, but that high-powered offense just didn't perform.

Mr. FATSIS: Well, it dominated is the thing. It took 42 shots to just 16 from Montreal. But the Capitals were thwarted by a brilliant performance by Montreal's Slovakian goaltender Jaroslav Halak. This guy stopped 131 shots in three games in the last three games of the series, and that's a lot. Players other than the goalie blocked 41 shots last night. They were sliding all over the ice, they formed a protective wall around the net, and they just surrounded Ovechkin like the Secret Service guys who escorted Vice Presidential Biden into the building earlier in the evening.

NORRIS: So, the number one team is out. How did the other top teams fare?

Mr. FATSIS: Well, in the East, not well. The number two and number three teams also lost, and that leaves the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins and their marquee star Sidney Crosby as the highest seeded team left in the East. In the West, the one, two, three and five teams advance. But those upsets in the East, I think, reflect how NHL teams can change tactics quickly to match up better against teams that have had more success in the long regular season.

And if it makes the series more competitive, I think that's a great thing. Twelve games went into overtime in the first round. Road teams won a lot. The teams averaged nearly six goals a game. Playoff hockey, very exciting.

NORRIS: So, has that translated into bigger interest in hockey?

Mr. FATSIS: You know, TV ratings are up about 20 percent on the cable network Versus, and that's up to where the NHL was on ESPN before the league's yearlong labor shutdown back in 2004, '05. It's hard to know exactly why, but maybe there's some spillover interest from that exciting Olympics gold medal game between the U.S. and Canada. Also, key here: Teams from most of the strongest TV hockey markets had good seasons and are still alive - Boston, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia.

NORRIS: Sports leagues haven't been immune from the broader pressures in the economy. How is the financial health of the NHL?

Mr. FATSIS: You know, treading water pretty much. I spoke with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman at the game last night. You know, Bettman has a reputation as a bit of a public Pollyanna about the league, but he did say that revenue this year will wind up around flat. Corporate sponsorship soft around the edges, he said.

On a local level, though, the NHL does have issues. Several teams reportedly have needed advances on the league's TV and/or revenue-sharing money in order to pay their bills. The Toronto Globe and Mail identified them as Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix, Florida, the New York Islanders and possibly Tampa Bay. And the common denominator there: continued trouble in the South and Western United States.

NORRIS: So, Stefan, help us look ahead to the next round. What are we looking for?

Mr. FATSIS: I think the NHL really wants to see Sidney Crosby advance as far as he possibly can. Out West, the Detroit Red Wings, a fifth seed, did very well in the first round. San Jose, one of the top seed and looking pretty strong.

NORRIS: Stefan Fatsis, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. FATSIS: Thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: Stefan Fatsis usually joins us Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. You can hear more of him on the podcast Hang Up and Listen, that's at Slate.com.

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