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Bob Cole and Harry Neale have been bounced, at least for a few days, from the CBC's top assignment in the National Hockey League playoffs.

Chris Cuthbert and Greg Millen, who have received good reviews for their work in the postseason, will call the first three games of the Calgary Flames-San Jose Sharks Western Conference final, while Cole and Neale will stay in the East.

"We're excited," Millen said. "We've been out West all year [calling the second game of the Hockey Night in Canada doubleheader] so it's nice to get a chance in the conference final."

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Cole and Neale will be in the booth for the second and third games of the Philadelphia Flyers-Tampa Bay Lightning series, after which the two CBC broadcast teams will change places. Cuthbert and Millen will move East, with Cole and Neale taking over in the West.

Joel Darling, the head of Hockey Night, said the switch had nothing to do with criticisms of Cole and Neale during the playoffs, or the speculation Cole will retire before the start of next season.

"We certainly think highly of [Cuthbert and Millen]" Darling said.

"But we just thought it would be a good way to give both broadcast teams a taste of the Calgary-San Jose series."

Darling said neither Cole nor Neale has been home since the start of the playoffs.

Still, it is unusual for Hockey Night to use two broadcast teams for a premier series. The last time was 1986, when both Cole and Don Wittman called the Flames-Montreal Canadiens Stanley Cup final.

Cole, who is older than 65, has been knocked for making mistakes, and Neale, 67, for uninspired performances. But Darling defended both.

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"Criticism of anything with Hockey Night doesn't sit well with us," he said.

"Bob's been doing this for a long time. I still think when you hear Bob on a game and his voice and the excitement he brings, he's still the best in the country. Does he make mistakes? We all do. Everybody's a critic of Hockey Night it seems these days."

A veteran hockey announcer said of Cole: "I didn't think there was much wrong with his work in [the sixth game of the Toronto Maple Leafs-Flyer series] Most of the games I've heard, I don't think there's much of a problem with Bob at all."

Darling would not comment on Cole's status at the end of the season. "We don't discuss contracts," he said.

He said Cole and Neale will call the Stanley Cup final and CBC's telecasts of the World Cup of Hockey In September.

Goodbye Saturday

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U.S. broadcasting priorities and arena availability have conspired to deny Hockey Night its traditional Saturday night game in the conference finals.

ABC gets a 3 p.m. EDT start on Saturday for the first game of the Flyers-Lightning series. Arena commitments in San Jose pushed the beginning of the Flames-Sharks series to Sunday. ESPN asked for and received a 4 p.m. start.

"Our wish would have been a later start," Darling said. "But we win more battles in Canada than in the United States. For a game in Canada, we have more push."

But even the CBC's push could not produce a prime-time telecast for Saturday, May 15. The Saddledome is booked, so the game was scheduled for Sunday at 4 p.m.

Game 7 fight

The CBC will carry the entire Flames-Sharks series, but the Flyers-Lightning match-up is a mixed bag in Canada.

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TSN will the first game on Saturday afternoon. The CBC will air the second, third and fifth games, while TSN will have the fourth and sixth games.

But there's a fight over a potential seventh game. TSN owns the rights to U.S. match-ups, but the CBC is allowed to cherry-pick.

TSN wants the potential seventh game, but the CBC is saying the game is available to it based on a somewhat complicated formula.

The CBC is allowed five conference final games in a seven-day period. The question, yet to be settled, is whether the seventh game belongs to TSN or the CBC.

Playoff ratings

Hockey Night drew its largest audience of the second round of the playoffs for the sixth game of the Leafs-Flyers series -- 3.18 million viewers.

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For the entire second round, the CBC averaged 1.895 million viewers a game, an increase of 13 per cent from last year. For the entire playoffs, the average is 1.953 million, a jump of 16 per cent.

TSN's second-round audiences were down 33 per cent from last year. The network averaged 380,000 viewers a game for its coverage of the Colorado Avalanche-Sharks series, mainly because of late starts and conflicts with Hockey Night telecasts.

The new reality series Making the Cut, about amateur hockey players trying out for NHL training camps, has bounced around during the past several months. The CBC appeared to lose it to Global Television, but now it's back on the CBC.

The network will announce today that the series will start in September.

whouston@globeandmail.ca

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