Monday, January 3, 2011
Pens-Caps nightime Winter Classic and 24/7 series show the best of the NHL
Taking a moment to reflect on something other than a Devils' season from hell, I've actually wanted to write about the Winter Classic ever since seeing the first episode of HBO's 24/7 reality series spotlighting both Pittsburgh and Washington in the run up to the outdoor special at Heinz Field Saturday and its immediate aftermath. HBO usually does a good job with its sports programming and reality shows like Hard Knocks, the recent Lombardi movie and the like. This show has also been very enlightening. Narrated by Liev Schrieber, it shows a side of both hockey teams that you don't get to see very often - certainly not from my team lol.
Thankfully, while the documentary certainly features Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin it doesn't overdo their presence and also gives a lot of time to role players such as Pascal Dupuis and recent Caps arrival Scott Hannan as he adjusts to life with a new team. Not to mention Mike Knuble's dental work after he recently lost several teeth, as is a hockey player's wont to do. Plus I haven't seen the Caps much this season (just one game where we didn't show up and another where they didn't) so I was surprised to learn they were tweaking their system after a 60-win season to attempt to be more playoff-ready this year. If anything, the stars of this feature so far have been coaches Bruce Boudreau and Dan Bylsma.
Admittedly I knew little about either going into this series, and the documentary certainly shows contrasting styles between the two coaches. Former NHL grinder Bylsma brings a positive yet businesslike approach to the Penguins and has certainly come off like he's got an idea of what he's doing, while Boudreau brings fire and intensity that would make some people blush. After being pillored for his own cursing during Hard Knocks, Rex Ryan joked he was offended by Boudreau's language. And who didn't get a laugh over Boudreau's Christmas shopping excursion with his kids, complete with the morning ice cream, or the Penguins' monthly shootout competition where the loser has to grow facial hair (and of all people it was ex-Devil Paul Martin who lost this month and had to grow a stache)?
Of course Boudreau had a lot to be worried about at the start of this series, as the Caps were in the midst of a losing streak that reached eight games and Boudreau was searching for answers, whether it was castigating his team such as after the 7-0 loss to the Rangers or finding the positives such as the fact that last year's Cup champs the Blackhawks actually had a nine-game losing streak at one point last year. Towards the end of the second episode, the Caps finally broke that skid in dramatic fashion, coming from 2-0 down against Ottawa on the road in a game you almost thought was scripted.
While HBO certainly can't reveal anything strategically that can put a team at a competitive disadvantage, you do get nuggets like Bylsma rating his players on their performances after a recent game with GM Ray Shero or Boudreau remarking about Pittsburgh's talented Russian Evgeni Malkin that you could goad him into a retaliation penalty, and that wound up happening during the teams' first meeting - a dramatic shootout win for the Penguins minutes after a no-goal call in overtime frustrated the Caps fans (and provided a rare look into the NHL's 'war room' in Toronto).
That game proved a worthy lead-in to the Winter Classic, scheduled to begin in the afternoon on New Year's Day but wound up being pushed back to the evening, and the nighttime scenery (and occasional rain) provided a unique backdrop for the most hyped-up Caps-Pens regular season showdown yet. Despite the fact the game was in Pittsburgh the crowd was surprisngly split with broadcaster Doc Emrick estimating that about 40,000 Pens fans and 30,000 Caps fans made up the announced crowd of 68,111. Guess that's what happens when you have a once-in-a lifetime Winter Classic with two teams that are in such close proximity to each other.
Maybe it wasn't the best of the Winter Classic games, but the Caps' 3-1 win was certainly a gutty performance. While stars Crosby and Ovechkin were held off the scoresheet - though Ovechkin did have a goal disallowed late due to incidental contact with the goaltender - the Caps came back after giving up an early second-period goal to Malkin with goals from Knuble and two from grinder Eric Fehr. Washington's Semyon Varlamov made 31 saves in getting the win, no doubt pleasing his goaltending coach, ex-Shark and Cane Arturs Irbe (now on the Caps' coaching staff, another fact I learned during the 24-7 series).
Even though I know how the game turned out, I'll be looking forward to the fourth and final episode of the HBO special in two days, especially with what had to be a lot of behind-the-scenes discussion about having to delay the start time of the game and a result that satisfied those of us who still aren't big Penguins fans - though admittedly you do get a more human side of them and the Caps in this series.