Things to ponder: TV, Wards, no guarantees

EDMONTON, Alberta -- Near the summit of Mount Everest is the place they call the death zone.

That's where the oxygen depletion impairs the brain's ability to function, leading to disorientation and other unpleasantness.

It's a situation very similar to having an extra off-day during the Stanley Cup finals. Still, there's always something a little interesting when reporters, players and coaches are forced to spend extended periods of time together before the biggest game of the season.

Here are 10 things to ruminate heading into Saturday's Game 6:

TV pulse

Much has been made of the meager television audiences in these playoffs, especially in the United States. But thanks in large part to a compelling final series, NBC's national ratings for the last three games are now on a par with those of the 2004 Stanley Cup finals, ESPN.com has learned.

More impressive, Game 5 managed a 2.5 rating and peaked at 4.0 in the late stages of the Oilers' 4-3 overtime win.

The rationale, according to television types, is that the product is a strong enough lure fans in and keep them interested, one of the key elements of improving the weak-kneed American television audience as a whole. Total viewers for Game 5 were 3.85 million, up 4 percent from Game 5 of the 2004 Stanley Cup finals between Calgary and Tampa Bay.

The younger male audience the NHL (and its advertisers) craves, between the ages of 18 and 24, was up 60 percent for the fifth game over Game 5 in 2004. There were also 25 percent more women (ages 18-24) watching Game 5.

Although NBC's overall playoff numbers are down significantly over ABC's numbers for the 2004 playoffs (minus 19 percent), the three NBC games thus far in the finals have a 2.0 share, which matches ABC's first three games in 2004. NBC is averaging more than 3 million viewers in this final series, slightly ahead of the actual number of viewers two springs ago.

The Weight and the Ward

Aaron Ward is in and Doug Weight is out.

Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette wouldn't specify the injury or whether the veteran center might return for Game 7 if it's needed Monday, but the fact Weight didn't skate Friday isn't a good sign.

The veteran center was sandwiched between Raffi Torres and Chris Pronger early in the third period of Game 5, and although he returned to the bench later in the session, he did not play again. He was favoring his left arm or shoulder.

Although Weight's loss is significant (he is one of the team's best playmakers and an important part of the league's most potent playoffs power play), the Canes are blessed with a plethora of centers. Some, such as Josef Vasicek and Matt Cullen, have been playing the wing because of the team's depth down the middle.

It's likely Vasicek will see his ice time expand in Game 6 and it's also possible Andrew Ladd will find himself playing more on the man advantage. Laviolette will have to decide whether to re-insert Chad LaRose into the lineup or go with an extra defenseman in the form of veteran Oleg Tverdovsky, who's been a healthy scratch for most of the postseason.

As for Ward, only Bret Hedican has logged more ice time among Carolina defenseman this spring, so it was a relief to Hurricanes fans to see Ward on the ice at practice Friday. The veteran defender left the game in the second period of Game 5 and returned in the third only to take a hard shot off the left foot.

"I finished the game. I'm good. Everything's fine," Ward said. "There, was that ambiguous enough? I could be the press secretary for the president right now."

Todd Harvey, Karma King

Veteran Edmonton forward Todd Harvey has played in eight postseason games this spring. The Oilers lost the first one, against Detroit, and have won the next seven in which Harvey has played, including Wednesday's Game 5.

Coincidence? Entirely.

Harvey is averaging just 8:04 a game and played 6:16 in Game 5, although he actually had several golden scoring opportunities.

Earlier in this finals series, Oilers coach Craig MacTavish said Harvey was more effective if he doesn't play in every game because he had more energy when coming off a day or two off.

Will MacTavish mess with Harvey Karma in Game 6 with the Oilers' season on the line? Don't bet on it.

"He's quite possible for Game 6," MacTavish said.

Harvey isn't exactly sure what to make of his lucky streak.

"I don't know what it is. I really don't think about it too much. Maybe I've just been on the good end of some good games," he said.

Does he believe in good karma? "Good karma? I try to have good karma. I think. I don't even know what that is," Harvey said with a laugh.

Go to the box and feel shame

With a playoff game -- and an entire season -- on the line, there can be no worse place for a player to be than in the penalty box. Unless, of course, the opposing team scores on the power play; then, the worst spot is skating back across the ice to your own bench.

Twice in Game 5, Edmonton rookie Matt Greene took minor penalties that resulted in Carolina power-play goals.

"It was tough," Green admitted Friday. "I had a cat die once. That was kind of the same thing."

Although Greene was benched for a long period of time after the second penalty, assistant coach and former Oilers defenseman Charlie Huddy immediately spoke to Greene and told him not to worry. Likewise, Greene's teammates made sure to give him their support. Then, later in the game, Greene returned to action.

"I will say one thing. He will be one heck of a hockey player," MacTavish said of the 6-foot-3, 220-pound native of Grand Ledge, Mich. "He's a whole package and we're getting lots out of him right now."

More than a handsome head of hair

The transformation of Mike Commodore from playoff bit player and hairy oddity to crucial performer has been a subtle one.

Back in 2004, Commodore gained attention with his unruly red hair while playing a modest amount during the Calgary Flames' run to the seventh game of the Cup finals against Tampa Bay.

"My mind-set was, don't make a mistake, get it out," said Commodore, who played only six or seven shifts a night, essentially to give his colleagues a breather. "It's different this year. I'm playing a lot and I'm not scared to make a mistake."

Commodore, 26, is averaging more than 19 minutes a night and has been among the Canes' most reliable defenders and most physical presence.

Commodore credits his year in the AHL during the lockout with improving all facets of his game and for exposing him to Carolina management. The Hurricanes acquired Commodore from Calgary last July.

What really happened in Game 5?

On first blush, it looked like Carolina forward Cory Stillman was simply pressured by Edmonton forward Ethan Moreau, which led to Stillman's own-zone pass being intercepted by Fernando Pisani, who scored the first shorthanded overtime winner in the Cup finals.

But various replays seemed to show that Moreau actually got a stick on Stillman's forearm, which might have slowed the puck's momentum.

Can you imagine if the goal had been waved off and the Hurricanes were given a 5-on-3 power play? Yikes.

Give Stillman credit for not trying to shift blame. He said Friday he wasn't sure if he got whacked or not.

The other minor bit of intrigue was a brief conversation between Edmonton defenseman Steve Staios, who'd been in the penalty box when Pisani scored, and Carolina netminder Cam Ward.

"I don't even remember. That's long over with," Ward said. "Just had a remark after the game and that's it. It's over."

Maybe. But like elephants, hockey players never forget.

Messier may be in the house, but guarantee has left the building

It was Mark Messier, of course, who helped establish himself as a hockey legend back in 1994 when he guaranteed the New York Rangers would defeat the New Jersey Devils in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. The Rangers trailed the Devils 3-2 in the series and Messier made good on the guarantee by netting a hat trick in the win. The Rangers went on to win their first Cup since 1940. Among Messier's teammates was MacTavish.

MacTavish, given the opportunity Friday, would not offer up a similar guarantee that his Oilers would prevail in Game 6 on Saturday.

"Uh, no. Absolutely not. I've never given those things any credence whatsoever. I think it was more a product of Mess just kind of went along with a journalist's headline story," MacTavish said. "I'll tell you one thing, it didn't make Mark play any harder. You knew he was going to play his rear end off in that game whether he guaranteed or not. You can't control the game of hockey, you can't control or guarantee anything."

Rule No. 1: Never make Coach look bad

If the Carolina Hurricanes are feeling any pressure, they're doing a good job of hiding it.
Late in practice Friday, coach Peter Laviolette was among those taking shots at goaltender Cam Ward.

"I made sure I went up to him and told him that there's a lot of cameras in there and not to embarrass the head coach. I made sure that I shot the puck every time so I didn't do a toe-pick into the corner," Laviolette said.

Ward took his cues perfectly.

"I thought we were friends," the rookie netminder said with a laugh. "You know what? He's got a good shot. Guys were giving it to him, but he's showed he's still got it as a player."

Get that man a cot

The NHL has only been keeping track of ice-time statistics for a few years, so there's no real historical data with which to compare Chris Pronger's presence this spring. Still, suffice it to say, Pronger is a machine.

Through 22 playoff games, the Oilers defender had played almost 100 more minutes than the player who's logged the second-most minutes, teammate Jaroslav Spacek.

MacTavish joked that he monitors Pronger's ice time "and I reprimand Charlie [Huddy] if it's anything under 30 minutes."

Pronger, too, joked about the time spent on the ice. "I am exhausted. I can't even answer your question, I am too tired."

In all seriousness, Pronger's performance this spring has been impressive in large part because he has been able to marry vast amounts of ice time with a high level of play. It's a performance few could replicate.

"You know what? He's not once wavered," MacTavish said. "A lot of times, guys that play that much over the course of the year and go through a grueling two months stretch of high energy, high pressure, you can see that it starts to grate on them mentally and physically. And the last round, round and a half, I have not seen that. Just the opposite."

Six of one, half-a-dozen of another

Twice during these Stanley Cup finals, there's been an extra off-day between games. Some players have said they wish they were playing Friday night, while others have enjoyed the extra day to recuperate.

The Oilers took advantage of the extra day early in the series to rebound from a 2-0 deficit, while the Canes seem to think they're further ahead with the longer break after losing a heartbreaker in Game 5 on Wednesday.

MacTavish, for one, believes the extra days off help create a better product on the ice.

"It'll make [Saturday's] game that much better," he said. "It really adds to the energy level of the playoffs."

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.