By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - The Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars will begin play for the Stanley Cup on Saturday, but who will be watching aside from diehard National Hockey League fans when the puck drops, as viewers will have a mouth-watering menu of sports to choose from.
With play in a COVID-19 quarantine bubble in Edmonton, which is closer to the North Pole than either Dallas or Tampa, the NHL will not benefit from any of the usual buzz generated around the two host cities or peripheral media attention.
Getting a slice of the viewership pie, even in their own markets, will prove challenging for both the Stars and Lightning, with the National Football League's Dallas Cowboys and Tom Brady and Buccaneers in Tampa hogging much of the spotlight.
Add the National Basketball Association closing in on its finals and Major League Baseball nearing a World Series, as well as college football and the U.S. Open golf major, and the competition for viewers is going to be as fierce as the play on the ice.
"I'm not expecting terrific numbers," Neal Pilson, the former president of CBS Sports, told Reuters. "They (NHL) are out of sequence playing now in September when normally they would be playing in June when the only real competition would be Major League Baseball.
"It (Stanley Cup) will get lost in the shuffle as will everybody. Everyone is diluting everyone else.
"It is a very unique, odd sport climate and marketplace right now and it is going impact all the sports."
As Stanley Cup match-ups go, the final will be an intriguing clash of styles pitting the flashy Lightning against the Stars, who play a tight-checking hard-hitting game.
This has been a season of atonement for the Lightning, who were the hot favorite to lift the Cup last year only to crash out in the opening round.
The Stars have been a bit of a surprise, getting past the heavily favored Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference final to send them back to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 2000.
Winning the Stanley Cup is considered one of sport's ultimate physical tests with teams having to survive four best-of-seven series to get their hands on the trophy.
But this year has also become as much a mental grind, with teams isolating in a COVID-19 bubble for almost two months.
"Whoever raises that Cup, they'll have earned it, that's for sure," said Lightning coach Jon Cooper.
After an Eastern Conference battle against the New York Islanders that went six grueling games, the last two needing overtime, the Lightning arrive at the finals banged up and weary with only one day to recover.
Tampa has played six overtime games these playoffs, including one in the opening round against the Columbus Blue Jackets that needed five extra periods to decide.
Dallas meanwhile comes into Saturday's game one on five days rest.
"As for gas in the tank, I guess we’ll see," said Cooper. “This is unlike any other Stanley Cup final where we’d get days rest.
"If you were to tell me, ‘Hey, Coop, you get to play in the Stanley Cup final. You’re only going to get 45 hours to rest before the game, but you get to play in it,’ I’m taking that all day."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Steve Orlofsky)