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Episode 3 of "HBO 24/7 Penguins/Capitals: The Road To The NHL Winter Classic" devoted 26 minutes to the Dec. 23 game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals, and it was the most riveting, unflinching and hypnotic presentation of regular-season hockey to ever hit the airwaves.

We had seen different parts of this symphony in the previous weeks. The locker room access. The coaches' speeches. The mic'd up players. The nifty, atmospheric on-ice camerawork. But the third episode was the full orchestra, using every impressive facet of "24/7" and applying it to a single game.

It's when these teams finally clashed that one realizes the deft hands at the editing banks for HBO. The first 120 minutes of this series were like two prize fighters on a long walk to the ring. The Penguins, for the most part, strutted there. The Capitals had a pronounced limp before turning it into a pimp walk by the end of Episode 2.

Again, the NHL was extraordinarily lucky here as it's been throughout the series. The Pens/Caps game had playoff intensity; it had disputed calls that left Sidney Crosby(notes) screeching "That's a [expletive] joke" with the cracking voice of a disgruntled teenager and Alex Ovechkin(notes) doing much the same as he smoldered in the penalty box.

It had a disputed goal that allowed HBO to take us inside the players/officials scrum to the off-ice officials box and to the War Room in Toronto in an extraordinary sequence. Hell, it even had that quintessential made-for-TV invention, the shootout, to decide the victor.

It was better than Episode 2 but still couldn't topple Episode 1 as the best of the series. Besides the game itself, Episode 3 offered a mix of icky medical moments and sugary holiday sequences featuring both coaches and players, before ending with a tease for the Winter Classic at Heinz Field set to My Chemical Romance's "The Black Parade." Which was as cool as it sounds.

Coming up, a recap, some clips and images and our Episode 3 superlatives. (SPOILERS AHOY)

And here ... we ... go.

This Week on 24/7

We begin with pain.

Mike Knuble's(notes) jaw has healed, and with a big needle and other tools of dentistry we see them removing metal brackets from his mouth and hear Knuble saying things like "you're happy it's only a broken jaw" because it could have been worse.

Ah, hockey.

Later, we get the plight of poor Ben Lovejoy(notes) of the Penguins, who scores his first NHL goal, gets into his first NHL fight and is an assist away from the Gordie Howe Hat Trick. Instead, he takes a puck to the face, getting a nasty gash and welt that later blows up like that poor woman in "Cloverfield" due to air pressure when the Pens are on their charter flight.

The first inkling that we've finally arrived at a showdown between the teams was when the HBO cameras captured Capitals fans chanting "We Want Pittsburgh" and "Crosby Sucks" after Washington's win over New Jersey on Dec. 21.

The game coverage begins in the pregame planning: Boudreau talking about how to defend Crosby and telling his players to hit Malkin every chance they get because "he's going to take a silly penalty" in trying to hit them back. (It's great foreshadowing, because that's exactly what played out in the game.)

We see parallel shots of the teams arriving at Verizon Center, preparing their equipment, Boudreau and Dan Bylsma giving marching orders. Great cutting, building the anticipation.

The editing during the game was cinema-quality: Uncensored conversations, rabid fans, brutal hitting, total emersion in the atmosphere. Ovechkin chirping Matt Cooke(notes) and getting bumped by Brooks Orpik(notes). Crosby's opening goal was filmed perfectly: From Malkin leaving the box to the goal being scored to reactions from both benches.

The between-periods game-planning was revelatory. The Penguins showing little regard for Caps goalie Michel Neuvirth. Boudreau demanding more effort. Here's a glimpse of the coaches' banter between the second and third:

Dan Bylsma: 'Let's get this bitch' from Greg Wyshynski on Vimeo.

As you can see, the cameras were everywhere. At one point, a Capitals off-ice time keeper was struck in the head with a puck. Referee Kelly Sutherland expressed his remorse to another off-ice official before saying, "Did we get her the puck at least?"

Sutherland also factored into what was the most illuminating sequence of the series thus far: What happens on a controversial save in overtime, as Marc-Andre Fleury(notes) gloved the puck on the goal line.

War Room During Penguins/Capitals 24/7 from Greg Wyshynski on Vimeo.

After nearly a half hour of the most intense footage of the series, there was nowhere to go but the mall. It's here we're introduced to a new character: Bruce Boudreau, Hungry Hungry Husband.

Boudreau and his two sons head to Tyson's Corner Center, the largest mall in the D.C. area, to shop for his wife. (This allegedly takes place on Christmas Eve, despite the fact the mall doesn't look packed like a lifeboat on the Titanic).

Three things were learn about Boudreau here. First, he appears to be the kind of husband who arrives at the mall with his family and says, "OK, if you need me I'll be at the food court."

Second, and like roughly 85 percent of men in his age bracket, he doesn't have a [expletive] clue what to buy his wife for Christmas. At one point, while holding shoes that may be the wrong color and size, he says he just needs something to "put under the tree." Well, guess it's better than wrapping up his own bobblehead doll.

Third, and most importantly: The man lusted after Haagen-Dazs at 10 a.m. We'll bet dollars to donuts this is a man who has, more than once in his life, yelled into a fast food drive-thru speaker, "WHADDYA MEAN IT'S NOT LUNCH YET?"

(Incidentally we'll make the same wager that at some point during his holiday shopping, and thanks to his rotund comportment, Boudreau was mistaken for the Mall Santa.)

Bylsma, meanwhile, played the domesticated dad: Shoveling snow, making dinner and disco dancing while playing Xbox Kinect with his son.

Then there was Nicklas Backstrom's(notes) Swedish Christmas, Mike Rupp dressed like an elf with his family and Capitals forward Eric Fehr's(notes) holiday good cheer (and unintentional comedy):

Eric Fehr Spreads Holiday Cheer from Greg Wyshynski on Vimeo.

The other major theme of the episode was the slow build to the Winter Classic at Heinz Field. We see the Pittsburgh Steelers talking about sharing locker room space with the Pens (and James Harrison saying he can "skate enough to fight."). We see the rink being built and the ice being formed.

The last 3 minutes of the episode were a montage of the Capitals and Penguins preparing for battle as the Classic rink was being constructed. (And Jordan Staal(notes) working his way back into the lineup.) A simple and effective infomercial for the game ... which now has something to live up to thanks to Episode 3 of "24/7."

F-Bomb Count: In the neighborhood of only 30. Boudreau actually delivered multiple speeches sans F-bombs; he may have been taken over by an alien pod.

Nudity Report: None, thankfully. Every time we saw skin, there was a needle being stuck in it by a doctor. This was for the best.

Hockey Geek Moment: Hearing the phrase "Gordie Howe Hat Trick" on HBO.

Missing In Action: Remember when Ray Shero was on "24/7"? Neither do we.

Money Quote, Capitals:

"I smell food."

-- Coach Bruce Boudreau at Tyson's Corner mall

Money Quote, Penguins:

"Is that kinda like Mike Green's(notes) thing he had?"

-- Mike Rupp to his daughter as she rode a pink scooter, in reference to the Capitals' defenseman's Vespa.

Three Stars

3. Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals

Who else would have a traditional Swedish Christmas celebration while wearing a black Dodgers hat?

2. Dan Bylsma, Pittsburgh Penguins

For the speeches, the disco dancing and because he won't have dish pan hands.

1. Kelly Sutherland, Referee

Who knew that the group who'd come out of "24/7" looking the best were the referees?

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