Update 5/28/08: Game 2 on Monday garnered a 1.9 national household rating and a bit more than 2.5 million viewers
National Nielsen ratings for Saturday night's game featuring the Pittsburgh Penguins vs. the Detroit Redwings drew a 1.8 national rating and drew in more than 2.3 million viewers. This represented an increase of 157 percent over last year's opener and a 100 percent increase over the first game two years ago.
Considering it aired on Versus, a channel few probably are even aware they have, that's pretty good. I caught a good chunk of the game Saturday night in high definition and the production quality was very high. At least for me, high definition really makes hockey a far better TV sport than it is via standard definition. You get to see how hard these guys work up close in crystal clear high definition. Added bonus: you can actually see the puck!
Nobody is rooting for Pittsburgh tonight more than NBC. Like game one on Saturday night, tonight's game two airs on Versus. A win by the Penguins would ensure that NBC will get to air at least three games of the Stanley Cup championship games, and for a variety of reasons (that all boil down to $$$) a longer series is better for everyone, including NBC.
Unlike other television deals, NBC does not pay the NHL a rights fee, instead the NHL and NBC are in a partnership where they share any profits. There's been a little bad luck of the draw here for both the NBA and the NHL with Detroit's basketball team competing for eyeballs with Detroit's hockey team. Both teams playoff games overlapped on Saturday night and will overlap again tonight as well.
This story by Dusty Saunders in the Rocky Mountain News suggests that NBC is working very hard to move NHL coverage from a national niche to the "major" status of NBA, MLB and NFL. Dollars aside, ratings-wise only the NFL can be considered "major". Baseball is a major TV sport during the world series and sometimes the playoffs, but otherwise not so much. And although the NBA playoffs fare much better than NHL, in its best half hour ratings wise Saturday night when the Boston Celtics took on the Detroit Pistons 4.69 million viewers were tuned in (there were less than 4 million in the worst half hour). For the primetime portion of the NBA coverage it averaged 4.34 million on Saturday, not quite double the NHL viewers.
Granted, that was an NBA conference final matchup, and the ratings will be better for the finals, but I think it's possible over the course of time the NHL can close at least some of the ratings gap with the NBA. Clearly, it's making up some ground this year.