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The Edmonton Oilers are still hanging around, and that's the best news the CBC has received in weeks.

With the Oilers advancing to the National Hockey League's Western Conference final, the network gets something it desperately needed: a Canadian team on which to anchor its third-round Stanley Cup coverage.

"Having Edmonton go into the Western final is very good for us," Nancy Lee, the head of CBC Sports, said yesterday.

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Not a whole lot has been good for the CBC in the playoffs. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks didn't qualify. The Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames made early departures, followed by the Ottawa Senators.

As a result, the audiences started small and never really improved to any significant level.

In the first round, the CBC averaged 1.288 million viewers, down 35 per cent from 2004, when Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa and Calgary participated.

For the second round, the CBC averaged 1.398 million, down 26 per cent from 2004, when three Canadian teams were involved, including Toronto, compared with two this year.

A positive development, noted by Lee, was that each of the two Canadian series lasted longer than four games.

A long series increases the number of telecasts. And the later games draw the largest audiences. Wednesday's Oilers-San Jose Sharks sixth game drew 1.749 million, the third largest audience for the playoffs.

At TSN, the audiences have been fairly good. The network is averaging 341,000 a game, up 10 per cent from 2004.

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NBC? Don't ask. OLN in the United States. Yikes.

The U.S. networks lost their big hockey markets in the first round when the New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Detroit Red Wings and Dallas Stars were eliminated. The Colorado Avalanche went out in the second round.

So, NBC and OLN are left with one Canadian team and three in the United States that have virtually no followings -- the Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes and Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

NBC has a postseason average rating of 1.1 (percentage of U.S. households watching the games), down 27 per cent from ABC's 2004 ratings. OLN's rating is 0.45, which converts to about 300,000 viewers a game, half of what ESPN used to pull in.

Broadcasting sources believe NBC's audience problems are tied directly to the league's decision to replace ESPN as its cable rights holder.

Without hockey on ESPN, the NHL is off the radar screen in the U.S. sports market and its absence is affecting interest in NBC's telecasts.

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"ESPN is in the mainstream," a source said. "You can't get OLN in most hotel rooms. You can't find it in a bar. In terms of accessibility, it's almost like the NHL is in the midst of its second cancelled season."

Another broadcaster said players on the U.S. teams in the playoffs regularly telephone around to find where they can watch the games.

"The NHL received great coverage on ESPN," the source said. "Now it's gone. Out of sight, out of mind. It's going to take a long time to bring it back."

Hitting the road

The CBC's Hockey Night in Canada is taking the Ron and Don show on the road for the Western Conference final.

Host Ron MacLean and commentator Don Cherry will be in Anaheim, Calif., for the Oilers-Ducks opener tonight and the second game of the series on Sunday. Bob Cole and Harry Neale will call the games.

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TSN also will be on-site for its coverage of the Sabres-Hurricanes series. It will produce its own telecast of the first game tomorrow afternoon rather than pick up NBC's show. Host James Duthie, as well as analysts Bob McKenzie and Glenn Healy, will be at the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C. Gord Miller and Pierre McGuire will call the game.

The CBC and TSN will share coverage of the Eastern final. TSN will air the first and second games and, if required, the sixth and seventh. CBC will carry the third, and fourth games and, if necessary, the fifth. Jim Hughson and Greg Million will provide the play-by-play. Kelly Hrudey will be the studio analyst.

Predictions

Pierre McGuire was 5-3 in the first round of the NHL playoffs, then slipped to 1-3 in the second -- wrong on the Hurricanes, Sabres and Oilers -- for a two-round record of 6-6.

Third round: Sabres over Hurricanes in six or seven. "I give a bit of an edge to [Sabres]Ryan Miller in goal." Ducks over Oilers in six or seven. "No disrespect toward Edmonton, but I just don't know if they're going to score enough."

Nick Kypreos, Rogers Sportsnet, was 6-2 in the first round, but dropped to 1-3 in the second -- wrong on the Sabres, Hurricanes and Ducks -- for a two-round total of 7-5.

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Third round: Oilers in seven. "I hate to use the term team of destiny, but you get that feeling about Edmonton." Sabres in six. "Carolina will have trouble with Buffalo's speed."

Saturday night

The NHL schedule maker has taken away the traditional Saturday night telecast, but Rogers Sportsnet will air nationally a Memorial Cup game tomorrow at 7 p.m., with host Moncton playing Vancouver.

whouston@globeandmail.com

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