By Dan Scifo
From the Point Contributing Writer
HBO did it again Wednesday night with the premiere of “24/7: Penguins/Capitals Road to the NHL Winter Classic.”
The premium cable television network, known in the sports world for the widely acclaimed “Hard Knocks,” which follows a National Football League team during training camp, appears to have hit another grand slam with “Road to the Winter Classic” – four weeks of unprecedented access to the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals as they careen toward one of the NHL’s marquee events.
The program did an excellent job for hockey enthusiasts and casual fans alike, introducing team backgrounds and profiles on not only superstars Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, but also Penguins’ and Capitals’ role players like Matt Cooke and Scott Hannan.
Viewers also got a rare chance to go into the homes of Penguins’ forwards Max Talbot and Pascal Dupuis, who spent time with his wife and four children before leaving for a road trip in Buffalo.
Penguin fans quickly caught an in-depth glimpse of the locker room atmosphere five minutes into the program as head coach Dan Bylsma addressed the players, complete with several vulgarities, before they took the ice against Toronto.
That wasn’t all viewers saw though.
The two teams were portrayed in interesting fashion during the first episode.
The Penguins, riding one of the longest winning streaks in franchise history, appeared fun-loving with many light-hearted highlights like the team’s family Christmas party, brief video of a snowball fight that broke out during a recent trip to Buffalo and the “Moustache Boy” shootout competition in practice where the losing player must grow a moustache for the next month.
Penguin fans were treated to a rare behind-the-scenes meeting between Bylsma and general manager Ray Shero where the two evaluated player performance from a recent game.
Talbot was highlighted as the star of the team Christmas party as he mixed it up with Cooke’s son, advised a daughter never to go out with a hockey player, and asked Santa Claus if he could have his “little helpers” for Christmas, referring to two young ladies standing nearby.
Some good-natured ribbing also took place on the Penguins’ charter where Crosby, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, and Talbot are shown playing a hand-held video game.
Also, Fleury, Cooke, forward Eric Godard, and backup goaltender Brent Johnson play a practical joke on teammates Mark Letestu and Ben Lovejoy as they moved every piece of furniture from their hotel room to the hallway.
The Capitals, on the other hand, are in the midst of a seven-game losing streak and couldn’t have been viewed as any more despondent.
Bad luck followed the Capitals around the entire episode as star defenseman Mike Green injured his knee, several players were sent home prior to a practice after coming down with a virus, and gloomy, depressing music accompanied slow-motion lowlights of a 7-0 whitewash against the New York Rangers.
Capitals’ coach Bruce Boudreau and his colorful, sometimes humorous, profanity-laced tirades stole the show.
Boudreau’s initial profanity-filled outburst takes place during the second intermission of what would be a loss against Florida. Boudreau lets loose with another expletive-laced rant later in the program during a timeout against the New York Rangers.
Boudreau also had an interesting comment about his skilled players adapting to a more defensive style of play.
“You have to keep it simple, but it’s tough because guys that are super skilled think they can do anything and they’re the hardest ones on the simplicity method,” Boudreau said.
Surprisingly, Boudreau even mentioned the possibility of a distraction thanks to the presence of HBO cameras.
“It’s a tough month because HBO is here,” Boudreau said. “But at the same time, I can’t sit here and watch what we’ve been going through and doing this without saying what needs to be said.”
He mysteriously added, “I guarantee you, in the Pittsburgh locker room, where they’ve won 10 in a row and they are undefeated in 12 games, everything is laughing and jokes and they’re going to be talking about the two teams; one struggling and one having the time of their lives.”
And that’s pretty much how it went down in the first episode.
Even Capitals’ owner Ted Leonsis mentioned the Penguins when talking about the pressure to win a championship.
“We need to win the Stanley Cup,” Leonsis said. “That’s the pressure that is on us. Pittsburgh has already won theirs.”
But as actor Live Schreiber said during a voice over featuring shots of a dejected Ovechkin and a smiling Crosby, teams are never as bad as they appear during their lowest points and never as good as they seem during their highest ones.
Despite a seven-game losing streak, the Capitals are still one of the best teams in the NHL. They will eventually return to the top and might even become a stronger team because of their recent slide.
“It’s better this happening now so we can deal with it and sort things out and be ready for the playoffs,” Hannan said.
It will be interesting to see next week’s program considering the Penguins recently lost two straight.
Either way, it’s guaranteed that “24/7 Road to the Winter Classic” will be an unprecedented look inside the locker rooms of the Penguins and Capitals.