Swear by it: HBO’s reality was real good for NHL

Hockey highlights: Now that the HBO cameras are off, was the Penguins-Capitals all-access series a success? … The Caps are struggling offensively, but they’re doing it with a playoff purpose in mind. … Andrej Meszaros(notes) is thriving on the third defense pairing in Philadelphia. … Brian Boucher(notes) has been on the goalie merry-go-round before. … And a Hall of Fame rant by Paul Coffey.

FIRST PERIOD

It was a fitting ending for HBO’s “24/7 Penguins/Capitals: The Road to the NHL Winter Classic.” The final image of the four-part, all-access series Wednesday night was cinematic symbolism – a shot through the window of a washing machine, as the Pens’ white road jerseys swished and swirled in the suds. That bookended the opening image of the series four weeks ago – Washington’s red home jerseys in the wash.

HBO's all-access approach gave fans an uncensored look at the NHL.
(Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

We got to see some dirty laundry, literally and figuratively, over the past month. We got to see some unscripted moments, from the mundane to the emotional, as the teams went through the circular, up-and-down tumult of the regular season and the hype leading up to the league’s annual outdoor showcase.

And it was good.

But not everyone is sure they would do it again.

“Oh, I don’t know,” sighed Caps center Brooks Laich(notes), who never seemed overly enthused by the idea of his team carrying the burden of extra attention, cameras everywhere, at work and at home, 24/7. “I really don’t know. It’s been a big process. …

“The immediate feedback that we’ve gotten so far is that the fans really like the HBO series. But we’ll see a couple months from now whether it did really grow the game, if it really was effective and worthwhile.”

Let’s not kid ourselves: A couple of months from now, the NHL’s TV ratings won’t be through the roof in the United States. Parents in non-traditional hockey markets won’t be clamoring to put their children on skates. The NHL won’t be challenging the NBA or MLB in popularity, let alone the NFL. If there’s measurable growth, it probably will continue to be incremental.

But that’s OK. Even if you don’t convert the masses, it’s still effective and worthwhile if you cater to your casual and core audiences. And doesn’t it represent growth, in and of itself, when the NHL has landed on HBO and turned an otherwise ordinary game into a spectacle that can sell out a football stadium and attract the largest TV audience for a regular-season game in 36 years?

The NHL should do more of this, carefully and selectively. It would be great if HBO would go again. But if not, the league should allow someone else to do a similar project, as long as similar standards could be met. The league could even do one on its own network, if it has the guts to be open and honest and not turn the show into a PR puff piece. (OK, unlikely.)

Can’t air profanity? Bleep it. Think it won’t be special the second time around? People are still hooked on “Hard Knocks,” aren’t they? Fans like to hear – or love to hate – Sidney Crosby(notes) complain and Alex Ovechkin(notes) call a rival city (Bleeps)-burgh. They like to know Bruce Boudreau drops F-bombs and digs Haagen-Dazs. If they feel connected to the people in the game, they’re more connected to the game itself.

“We’ve joked with the HBO guys that we’ll have to invite them back,” Pens coach Dan Bylsma said. “We are going to miss them.”

So are we.

SECOND PERIOD

Before Capitals defenseman Mike Green(notes) scored Dec. 23 against the Penguins, before he looked up to the rafters and exhaled in relief more than celebration, he started receiving some instructions he isn’t used to hearing from his coaches.

Mike Green's point total is well below his pace of the past couple seasons.
(Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

“Now they’re telling me to jump back up into the play,” Green said. “They say, ‘We know you can play ‘D’ now, but you need to score goals for us.’ I’m finding a balance, just as we are as a team.”

Green led NHL defensemen in scoring each of the last two seasons – with 73 points in 2008-09 and 76 in ’09-10. He didn’t need to be told to jump into the play. But he was part of an offensive machine that stalled come playoff time, so the Caps’ coaches have been preaching defense this season. They even installed the trap during their eight-game losing streak last month.

“We’ve tweaked a few of our systems to give us a little bit more of a safety net if one player does happen to make a mistake,” Laich said. “It shouldn’t subtract from our offensive play at all. We’re just trying to make our team better with more solid defensive play.”

In the short term, the new emphasis – plus an unusually impotent power play – has left the Caps discombobulated and unproductive. Green said it “affected me,” making him worry too much about staying back on ‘D.’ He is on pace for 39 points, which would be his lowest total in four seasons.

Others are struggling, too. Teams have adjusted to Ovechkin’s tendencies, with defensemen stepping up, forwards backchecking hard and no one allowing him to cut to the middle on his forehand. He is on pace for 28 goals and 84 points, which would be career lows. Nicklas Backstrom(notes) has no goals in 15 games, and Alexander Semin(notes) has no goals in 13 games. The Caps are 11th in goals per game, after leading the league last year.

The hope is that, in the long run, the goals will gush again and improved defensive play will result in improved results in the playoffs. The Capitals have the second half to put it all together.

“We used to be more of a run-and-gun kind of team and had to adjust, and it’s not easy to adjust overnight,” Green said. “It took some time, but we’re getting better as it goes on. I wouldn’t say we’re great at it yet by any means, but we’ve still got lots of time to work on it.”

THIRD PERIOD

While working on a Steve Yzerman profile in September, I had multiple NHL executives praise Stevie Y’s work as the rookie general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Each used the same off-season trade as evidence – sending defenseman Andrej Meszaros to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for a second-round pick. Meszaros had four years and $16 million left on his contract. He was minus-14 last season.

Playing on Philadelphia's third defense pairing has helped Andrej Meszaros lead the league in plus-minus.
(The Canadian Press/Mark Samala

Now Meszaros is plus-25, best in the league.

It probably was still a good move for the Bolts to dump that contract. A lot of the plus-minus number can be explained by circumstance. Meszaros is playing on the third pair with another new arrival in Philly, Sean O’Donnell(notes), and usually isn’t asked to play against other teams’ top lines. The Flyers have good scoring depth. So the odds are lower that he’ll be on the ice for goals against and higher that he’ll be on for goals scored.

This is a guy who was plus-34 in 2005-06, one off the league lead, when he played with Zdeno Chara(notes) for the Ottawa Senators, then fell to minus-15 the next season, after Chara left for the Boston Bruins.

But that doesn’t mean Meszaros isn’t playing well and isn’t important.

“We’re pretty deep on ‘D’ this year,” goaltender Brian Boucher said. “Our (third) pairing, if you want to call them that, has been in the league lead for plus-minus, O’Donnell and Meszaros. They’ve played great. And last year, to be quite honest with you, we didn’t have a strong (third pairing). We played the top four a ton, and I think it hurt us in the end. They were tired, those guys. So I think we have full confidence in all our defensemen.”

OVERTIME

The Flyers have sent Michael Leighton(notes) to the minors, and rookie Sergei Bobrovsky’s(notes) confidence is in crisis. Suddenly, Brian Boucher has the inside track to be the No. 1 goaltender for a team that came within two victories of winning the Stanley Cup last season.

Not that he’s looking at it that way.

“I’m 34 now,” said Boucher, whose birthday was on Sunday, when he played well in a 3-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings. “So I try not to get caught up in that type of stuff anymore. I’ve played too long and have seen too many things to know that things can change on a dime.”

Like they have this season, perhaps, when Leighton sat out recovering from back surgery and Bobrovsky got hot? Or like they did last season, when Boucher started the Flyers’ first 10 playoff games, got hurt and watched Leighton play all the way to the final?

“When I signed here two years ago, I signed to be the No. 2 guy that could spell the starter and stuff like that and could play if the guy was injured,” Boucher said. “I feel strong about that role. I feel like I can do that role very well. I think I can play in all different situations.”

One of those situations is being the No. 1 guy, though.

SHOOTOUT

Leighton insists his back his OK, by the way. “I feel good,” he said Sunday night, before he hit the waiver wire. “I feel I’m pretty close to 100 percent. Just working hard and trying to stay sharp.”

Scary night for Pens opponents: In Wednesday’s 8-1 rout of the Tampa Bay Lightning – the first-place team in the Southeast, a team coming off a 1-0 shutout of the Caps – Crosby, the NHL’s scoring leader, had only a measly assist.

Love entertaining hockey? Then you’ll love this mini-rant by Hall of Fame defenseman Paul Coffey during the Winter Classic festivities: “Forget the money. Why not try to make some kind of imprint on the game? Why not make 10 All-Star Games? Why not win three or four Stanley Cups? Why not score three, four, five hundred goals if you can? People always say to me, ‘How did Wayne Gretzky ever score 215 points?’ I say, ‘Because he wanted to score 300.’ That’s why. If he got a goal in the first period, forget it. He was going to get three or four. There’s nothing worse than when a guy gets an early goal and he shuts it down for the rest of the game. It’s cheating the fans. It’s cheating everybody. But the good guys, the real good quality guys that put a lot of pressure on themselves, like the Crosbys, the Ovechkins, they don’t do that.”

@cotsonika is finally on Twitter. A tweet from earlier Thursday: “Next NHL reality series I want to see on HBO: ‘24/7 Bettman/Fehr: The Road to a New CBA.”

Nicholas J. Cotsonika is a hockey writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Nicholas a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Jan 6, 2011