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Fox Sports Sun coverage ramps up Lightning’s fun level

By Tom Jones | Times Columnist
Published: March 4, 2018 Updated: March 5, 2018 at 12:38 AM
DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) battles Philadelphia Flyers left wing Taylor Leier (20) in the neutral zone during the third period of Saturdays (3/3/18) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Philadelphia Flyers at Amalie Arena in Tampa.

Tampa Bay Times columnist Tom Jones looks back at the best and worst from a weekend of televised sports.

Most fun
The Lightning might not win the Stanley Cup, but man, this hockey team is fun to watch.

Saturday was a beautiful day in Tampa Bay. Blue sky. Cool weather. A perfect day to go outside and do one of the million things there are to do in Tampa Bay on a beautiful day.

But if you weren't inside the house watching the Lightning's wild 7-6 shootout victory against the Flyers, you missed out.

The Lightning's best players — Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy — played like the Lightning's best players, and the result was one of the most entertaining games of the season as Tampa Bay twice overcame two-goal deficits.

This is like 1980s hockey, when scores like 7-6 were common. There's never a Lightning game that feels out of reach — for either team. That might drive coach Jon Cooper crazy, but it drives the viewers to the edge of their seats. And no matter how you feel about the way the Lightning is playing, the bottom line is this: Tampa Bay still has the best record in the NHL.

What makes it even more entertaining is the outstanding coverage by Fox Sports Sun.

Play-by-play announcer Rick Peckham has always been one of the better team announcers in the business, but he has raised his game to a new level this season. He has been the Lightning's announcer for 22 seasons, but this season he seems to have a renewed passion, and it is showing up in his calls. His work Saturday was as good as it gets.

Analyst Brian Engblom, in his second season after replacing popular Bobby "The Chief'' Taylor, strikes the perfect balance between fun and terrific insight.

Throw in the studio work of host Paul Kennedy, Taylor and Dave Andreychuk, as well as the superb technical direction and production, and it's hard to imagine there is a better local NHL broadcast.

So, enjoy, Lightning fans. Even on really nice days.

Most misguided whiners
I'm pretty much over outdoor hockey games. There should be one a season, and that's it. So I wasn't all that jacked up for Saturday night's outdoor game between the Caps and Maples Leafs at the Naval Academy. It was the NHL's 24th outdoor game since 2008. The pregame festivities, including members of the U.S. and Canadian militaries, as well an appearance by the gold-medal-winning U.S. men's curling team, was cool, but the game was a dog as the Caps won 5-2.

.@usacurl's @TeamShuster delivered the puck to center ice like only curling gold medalists should! ����

— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) March 4, 2018

But there was controversy. A power outage caused a 15-minute delay, meaning the game was going to run past 11 p.m. Eastern time. So, at 11, with four minutes left in the game, NBC decided to switch the game to NBCSN. Why? So affiliates in the East could go to local news in order for a new Saturday Night Live to start on time at 11:30.

Hockey fans, who already have a chip on their shoulder about how their sport is treated, took to Twitter to complain.

The two biggest comments were how NBC would never do that to the NFL and how the NHL should look for another TV partner when the current deal with NBC ends after the 2020-21 season.

For starters, fans are right that NBC wouldn't do the same to the NFL. That's because nothing is more important to any network than the NFL. The NFL remains by far the most popular programming on TV. Saying the NFL is treated better than the NHL is silly because the NFL is treated better than everything, including Saturday Night Live.

But SNL remains more important than the NHL, and anyone who can't understand that is naive. Of course NBC did the right thing by switching a regular-season game that was already a blowout to another network.

Meantime, careful what you wish for, hockey fans, in terms of which network carries your sport. NBC and NBCSN do a pretty good job with hockey. The game telecasts, announcers and studio shows are top-notch, and you usually get three to five games a week. Where else is the NHL going to go?

Before you say ESPN, you sure your sport is going to get the best treatment among all ESPN does with the NFL, college football and basketball, and the NBA?

Okay, so NBC made the decision to switch networks with four minutes left in a blowout. Get over it. It's not that big of deal by a network that otherwise has done a stellar job covering the NHL.

Best word-for-word analyst
HBO Boxing unofficial judge Harold Lederman says maybe a couple hundred words a broadcast, but he's a gem. Take Saturday night during HBO's coverage of Sergey Kovalev defending his WBO light heavwyeight title with a seventh-round TKO of Igor Mikhalkin. Before the seventh, the ringside doctor looked at a nasty cut under Mikhalkin's right eye and let the fight go on though Kovalev was dominating and Mikhalkin's face was a mess.

That's when Lederman, in his thick Bronx accent, said, "I tell ya something, Mikhalkin has got a lot of heart. This guy is all busted up. He has been taking a terrible beating for six rounds. Why in god's name didn't the doctor stop the fight? I can't see letting those cuts get worse. I know Mikhalkin's got a big heart, he's trying hard. But he's getting all busted up, and I hope to heck he doesn't get hurt.''

That's outstanding.

Before the round was over, the fight was mercifully stopped — as Lederman said it should have been.

Most interesting tidbit

ESPN reached out to Bob Costas about being the play-by-play guy for Sunday Night Baseball. The New York Post reported that ESPN met with Costas once. ESPN ended up going with the talented Matt Vasgersian to partner with Alex Rodriguez and Jessica Mendoza. But this is the really interesting part: The Post speculated that A-Rod might not have wanted Costas because Costas has been an outspoken critic of steroid users. Also interesting that A-Rod and Vasgersian have the same agent.

Speaking of A-Rod, he was all smiles and the subject of loud applause during a cameo on Saturday Night Live, proving once again that taking performance-enhancing drugs during his career still continues to pay off.

Three things that popped into my head
1. Best coverage of the weekend goes to NBC for the World Golf Championship Mexico Championship, including outstanding replay work as Phil Mickelson beat Justin Thomas in a playoff to win his first tournament since the 2013 British Open. Too bad "Lefty" won't be here at Innisbrook this week for the Valspar Championship.

2. When Roger Bannister, who passed away Saturday at 88, ran the first sub-four-minute mile in 1954, it was like being the first man to climb Everest or walk on the moon. What many forget is that Bannister's record of 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds lasted only 46 days before Australia's John Landy ran the mile in 3:58.

3. The Rockets' 123-120 victory over the Celtics on Saturday was one of the best NBA games of the year, and how nice was it to watch a Saturday night prime-time game that didn't have the Warriors or Cavs?