Which is to say the narrative of HBO's "24/7 Penguins Capitals: The Road To the NHL Winter Classic" had come full circle by the time the fourth and final episode concluded.
Please recall Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau, in his first appearance in the series in Episode 1, reminding his players that "HBO's in here" during their December losing skid and that the cameras were ready to draw a stark contrast between the teams for TV:
"I guarantee you that in the Pittsburgh locker room, when they've won 10 in a row and they're undefeated on 12 games, everything's laughing and jokes, and they're going to be talking about the two teams: One struggling, and one having the time of their lives."
After the Winter Classic at Heinz Field, it was the Penguins' locker room that looked beleaguered and disappointed while the Capitals were the jovial lot. According to Boudreau, the cameras that had magnified his team's struggles turned out to be a rabbit's foot for the Capitals:
"Hey, the month didn't start out too well. I think HBO brought us some luck and we ended it pretty well."
HBO's "24/7" ended pretty well, too: With explosive footage of the Classic and by tying together several narratives from the mini-series. It couldn't match the intensity of the previous episode's Penguins/Capitals showdown in D.C., which was like a syringe of adrenaline to the heart of every hockey fan. But it was a satisfying, poetic end to the best four weeks of televised hockey we can remember.
Coming up, a recap, some clips and images and our Episode 4 superlatives. (SPOILERS AHOY)
And here ... we ... go.
This Week on 24/7
We begin with Dan Craig making ice at Heinz Field and the NHL stressed about the temperatures and rain four days away on New Year's Day. Later, when the game was postponed to Saturday evening, we learn from NHL VP Bill Daly that playing the game at 5 p.m. EST was a consideration. Again, HBO access leads to insight.
To prepare for the Classic, the Capitals practice outdoors in Maryland, smearing on eye-black and hearing their coach call them "[excrement]-bums" at a fancy country club and in front of legions of young kids. Which was rather hilarious.
The games leading up to the Classic are given perfunctory coverage, including the end of Sidney Crosby's(notes) point-streak against the New York Islanders. That loss served as a set-up to Penguins GM Ray Shero's best line of the series, in mock outrage to Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma in the coach's office: "So what the [expletive] happened last night, Dan?!"
That meeting took place after one with Jordan Staal(notes), in which the two managers and the player debated whether he should return for the Classic. He would eventually play, of course, bringing his series-long storyline to a fulfilling conclusion, and an entertaining one at that: Staal lost a shootout drill against a delightfully foul-mouthed Marc-Andre Fleury(notes), and had to run to the top of Heinz Field and touch the Section 527 sign as punishment (as the fans in attendance roared).
The Capitals' practice found them testing out the soft ice and hearing Boudreau declare "this is an exciting event, but it's two [expletive] points we're going to take off these pricks here."
In the hours leading up the Classic, we see the teams both arrive over the Clemente Bridge with police escorts, before we're treated to a wonderful "training" montage straight out of a "Rocky" movie: It's actually set to "Burning Heart" from that Stallone vs. Ivan Drago classic "Rocky IV" (a staple, apparently, of the Penguins locker room). It's also an aural cue to the Sidney/Ovie rivalry, to the point where one expected to see Brigitte Nielsen standing next to Ovechkin's locker with a stopwatch and a long cigarette holder.
As the song fades, something comes into focus for the viewer: We've arrived.
The show's called "Road To the Winter Classic," and this is our exit. We know these faces. We know these coaches' speeches. We know about Crosby's peanut butter and jelly sandwich and Matt Hendricks'(notes) funky eye on the mend. We know these teams and the stakes for this game. All of this is conveyed in a stirring montage at the start of the game, that features players' wives and McPhee and Shero and Leonsis and Mario and perfectly sets the scene for the game to some kind of super-charged version of the National Anthem:
We all know what happened in the Classic. A few of the fantastic editing choices from HBO that augmented the experience:
In the Classic, he was ... Matt Cooke.
He got the series' first "Mother [Expletive]" from a Capital. He drove one of the referees temporarily insane by claiming he missed seven cross-checks. He threatened to take Nicklas Backstrom's(notes) teeth out. The set-up early paid off late to capture both sides of the pest: Off the ice as a family man, and on the ice as the devil incarnate.
• One of the referees warning Alex Ovechkin not to leave his feet again on a hit, having already done so once in the game. Expect this to be mentioned once or twice be detractors.
• Sidney Crosby blowing a gasket over not getting a penalty shot after getting hauled down by Mike Green(notes): "I watch [expletive] 80 games on TV and that's a penalty shot every time. By the way, that was a [expletive] hook on the way in, too."
• Dramatic, ice-level camera work. You can't really follow the play, but for specific moments like goal celebrations or brutal hits or debates with the officials, it was extraordinary -- giving hockey an NFL Films-level of context for each situation.
This was never more evident than at the end of the game, when there was that nastiness between the teams before the Capitals celebrated the Classic win. And, in the process, gave their coach Bill Cosby Face:
After the Capitals celebration and the Penguins somber postgame chat, the end of the mini-series was poignant: A montage of the 4 hours' most memorable images and scenes, set to Muse's "Exogenesis: Symphony Part III." The lyrics:
"Let's start over again
Why can't we start it over again?
Just let us start it over again
And we'll be good
This time we'll get it...
We'll get it right."
Empty dressing rooms. Empty training rooms. Narration that talks about how hockey never slows down; how it's always about the next game or the next arena.
And then, to bring home both the kinetic and cyclical nature of hockey, we're given a visual bookend to the series: Penguins jerseys tumbling around a washing machine, four episodes after Capitals jerseys spinning in a washer opened this landmark series.
F-Bomb Count: In the neighborhood of 60. The Winter Classic provided many of them, as did the Pittsburgh Penguins' practice at Heinz Field, thanks in no small part to Marc-Andre F-Bomb.
Nudity Report: None, although Ovechkin's, er, Russian Machine could be seen bouncing around in his sweatpants as he had the leg jimmies in the locker room. (There's probably an animated .gif somewhere out there; search if you dare.) Mistakenly considered nudity: Mike Green's belt and belt loop that, in a fleeting glimpsed, looked like a crack in his hotel doorway.
Hockey Geek Moment: Seeing actual bulletin board material in the Capitals locker room. Mark Madden, providing fodder for the enemy.
Missing In Action: What, no coverage of the Winter Classic alumni game at all?
Money Quote, Capitals:
"It's not the Cup, but it feels pretty [expletive] good."
-- Coach Bruce Boudreau after the Winter Classic, to GM George McPhee
Money Quote, Penguins:
"Alright you [expletive] [expletive]-face! Come down here, you bastard!"
-- Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins during a practice shootout
3. Jordan Staal, Penguins. His comeback finished off his story arc well, and he came off as King Goofball during practice, which was refreshing to see.
2. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals. He was all over the Classic, with hits and yapping and a no-goal. He wasn't the focal point of every episode, but HBO wisely brought him to the forefront here.
1. Dan Craig, NHL. Anytime you have the Obi-Wan Kenobi of ice-making telling the casual viewer how the magic's made, it's a win.