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SPORTS WEEKEND | TV-RADIO

Kings Hope It's Better Late Than Ever

April 13, 2001|MIKE PENNER

At this point, it's apparent the Kings have a lot more to worry about than when the next two games of their plank walk against the Detroit Red Wings will be played.

Still, you look at the starting times and dates for Games 2 and 3 in this first-round playoff series and you get the distinct impression that whoever signed off on this schedule was playing without a helmet.

Game 1, as the Kings and their fans would like to forget, was played Wednesday night at Joe Louis Arena. Kings down by three goals before the 14th minute, Kings gripped by a debilitating panic in Detroit, Kings wanting to get out of town ASAP.

Maybe they could have taken a Game 2 forfeit and headed for the airport?

Instead, they got to toss and turn in hotel beds for two more nights, Sergei Fedorov haunting their dreams, before Game 2 on Saturday, 1 p.m. Detroit time.

Then they fly back home, choke down some holiday ham with the family and head straight to Staples Center, where they will play Game 3 at 8:30 p.m. on Easter Sunday--or very nearly the day after Easter Sunday, Detroit time.

In Los Angeles, reporters covering Game 3 will know the first few words of their opening paragraphs before the first puck is dropped--At press time, the Kings trailed the Red Wings . . . --because first-edition newspaper deadlines will be approaching by the start of the third period.

In Detroit, Red Wing fans will fire up the Red Bull, followed by chasers of industrial-strength coffee, whatever gets them through the night to the final horn, which should sound around 2:15 in the morning, Detroit time.

There has to be a better way, and there most certainly is, but by the time NHL officials finished trying to placate King and Red Wing interests, appease television interests and work around Laker and Clipper schedules, this was the compromise they managed.

The Kings and Red Wings could have played Games 1 and 2 in Detroit on Wednesday and Thursday, then traveled to Los Angeles for Game 3 on Saturday. Except the Red Wings didn't want to play three games in four days . . . and they preferred a Saturday afternoon home game to a Thursday night home game . . . and ABC wanted a 1 p.m. (EDT) start for that Saturday game, which would have meant a 10 a.m. opening faceoff at Staples Center and left a bleary-eyed home crowd to chant, "Put the breakfast bagel in the basket!"

The Kings and Red Wings could have played Games 1 and 2 in Detroit, taken Easter Sunday off and resumed the series in Los Angeles early next week. Except the Clippers have a home game Monday night and the Lakers have a home game Tuesday night.

The Kings and Red Wings could have played Game 3 in Los Angeles a few hours earlier on Sunday. Except the Lakers are scheduled to play the Portland Trail Blazers at home the same day, NBC wants the game for its 2:30 p.m. national telecast and Staples Center workers need at least two hours to reconfigure the arena from basketball to hockey.

Another option, seriously considered by the NHL, was for the Kings and Red Wings to play Game 1 in Detroit, Game 2 in Los Angeles, Games 3 and 4 in Detroit and Game 5, if necessary, in Los Angeles.

To put it into hockey terms, the Kings, now winless in their last 13 playoff games, would have had to play three of four games in Detroit, where the Red Wings haven't lost since December.

"That would have been completely unfair to our team and our fans," King President Tim Leiweke said. "We were looking at that, going, 'Well, that's not going to happen.' Especially when Detroit is undefeated in its last [20] games at home."

So the Kings settled for a late start at home Sunday and are trying to make the best of it.

"I think it works out fine," Leiweke says. "It's Easter Sunday and we're starting an hour later than we normally would for a night game. It probably helps some people that do the family-dinner stuff.

"For our team, our coach is ecstatic, because it's a 2-2 then a 1-1-1 [home and away series]. And in particular, we're the younger of the two teams in the series and we don't mind playing back to back. Especially when we get to come home for the second [game] of the back-to-back. And especially when [the Red Wings] are playing at 11:30 Detroit time on the end of the back-to-back."

BETTER TOO EARLY THAN TOO LATE?

Game 3 will be televised nationally by ESPN2, and the late starting time certainly won't help the NHL's flagging television numbers. Ratings for the NHL during the regular season were at sub-XFL depths: 1.1 on ABC, 0.59 on ESPN, 0.25 on ESPN2.

"We're playing the cards that we're dealt, basically," ESPN spokeswoman Diane Lamb says. "The way we're looking at it, at ESPN, we love hockey and we have the flexibility to carry that game at 11:30. So, hopefully, our hockey fans out there appreciate that fact, that we are able to carry it."

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