Over the course of the past month, the HBO cameras have taken us behind the scenes in ways that many of us always dreams of, but never thought would be possible. Whether you are a dedicated fan of one of the teams, the sport, or a casual observer, chances are that you saw the passion and humanity of the people involved in the sport of hockey in ways that moved you. Unfortunately, Episode 4 of this series means that has come to an end. The series would have to be considered a success overall, and while the last episode doesn't break any new ground, it shows us the main event.
The beginning of the episode starts with the preparation for the field and rink at Heinz Field and discussion of the weather. Throughout we will see snippets of non-winter classic games, but they are brushed over. They do take the time out to show the Penguins families in a suite at the Thrashers game. Afterwards, we see Matt Cooke taking his son around to show off a new suit. As goaltending coach Giles Meloche points out, it is the exact same suit that his dad has.
We also see a Caps-Canadiens game brushed over, with the following sequence detailing an outdoor practice. The Caps guys have some fun with the eye black, and then they have a practice. There, Bruce Boudreau utters his strangest curse of the series, "shitbums".
After the Pens-Islanders game, there is a discussion between GM Ray Shero, Dan Bylsma, and Jordan Staal about his possible return for the Winter Classic. Staalsy plays it cool, despite having a sleeve on his hand. Even if he had any doubt, he played the cards so close to the vest, it probably helped his cause. After he leaves the roo, we get what I believe is the comedic scene stealer of the series. Shero stiffly turns to Bylsma (surely aware of the comedic affect) and says "What the fuck happened last night?" in regards to the Islanders loss. We didn't see much of Shero's personality in the show, so this was a nice addition.
As the eyes continue to turn to the Classic, the weather become more a part of the discussion. WPXI Meteorologist Scott Harbaugh is interviewed. He gives a pretty good line about doing it for 17 years and nobody caring unitl now.
The scene shifts back to a Caps practice. There we see concern over the Capitals Power Play, and it's struggles (sound familiar Pens fans?). After that, they board a plane and we are shown their arrival. Some nice shots of Pittsburgh follow as they go through the Fort Pitt Tunnels and make that exit to see the city that many of us love, and the view that just can't be beat for Pittsburghers.
New Year's Eve day is the next segment, and surprisingly there is no mention of the Alumni Game. I can understand the desire to keep the focus on the main event, but come on. There were so many legends on both sides of the rink that it's a disservice to hardcore fans watching the series. But then again, everything surrounding the Alumni game was from what it seems like, so maybe that's an accurate, documentarian depiction of the event.
In the Penguins practice, Marc-Andre Fleury steals the show by cussing out players as they compete in a practice ending shootout. The loser (Jordan Staal) has to run up the steps in the closed end zone of Heinz, up to the top of Section 527.
The Capitals take the ice and the quality of the surface is discussed. The concensus is that the ice is slow, soft, and sticky. This will likely have an affect on the game, and the way the players have to handle the puck and approach plays. New Year's Eve approach and the Capitals have a team, family, and friends dinner at their hotel.
New Year's day arrives and Coach Bylsma tells Jordan Staal the news that he (and Pens fans) have been waiting for, he's officially back in the lineup. After this we see the bus ride over to the stadium, as they head across the Roberto Clemente Bridge. I may be a nerd, but there's something about seeing the city I love shown on tv like that that makes me swell with pride.
Before the game, the pregame speeches are interspersed again. The message isn't as inspiration this time to be honest, but it's still very cool to see this.
During the course of the game, we see a lot of interesting moments. I'll comment on a few.
-A ref tells Ovechkin that he can "hit all night, but not to leave his feet." Ovie does tend to charge by taking more than 2 deliberate strides at a player, and/or leaving his feet. I can live with strides, but it's nice to see a ref keeping players on their skates. Leaving one's skates can cause injury, especially a head injury.
-Sid is tripped up and the ref calls a penalty, but does not award a penalty shot. There is chirping between him and the ref, to which the ref says something along the lines of: I give you a penalty, and you're still on my case. Crosby replies, "Yeah, I've watched like 80 games and it's a penalty shot every time." I'd be interested to hear what non-Pens fans think of Crosby vs. the refs in this series. It's no secret that many think he is a whiner. I think he's gotten much better, but this was a moment I'd prefer to not have. The refs and linesman take too much abuse. I'm still amazed they put up with it.
-Matt Cooke tells a ref that he was crosschecked in the back seven times, prompting the ref to say if I missed seven crosschecks, I'm pretty lousy. Cooke says that he could "dive to embellish it if he wants".
-The rain comes in the 2nd period and seems to have an affect on the ice condition and ability to control the puck.
-A moment that I had to chuckle, narrator Liev Schreiber calls "a rare lapse by Marc-Andre Fleury" in refernce to the 2nd Caps goal. My guess is that Sabretooth doesn't write these himself, or watch many Pens games. Even when he's on top of things, Fleury makes the most calm Pens fan fidget when handling the puck sometimes.
-Lots of incidental contact talk between the Rupp non-goal and the Ovie non-goal The ref explains to Ovie, "it's either no goal or I give you a pentalty." Actually, why not both? I hate this rule, this interpretation of the rule, and think that either a defensive or offensive player should be going to the box in these cases.
-There is some time spent on the headshot to Sid at the end of the 2nd. As we now know, Sid has a concussion. What isn't known is if this hit was the cause, but incidental or not, the play should be reviewed by the league. I'm not in the camp of 100% certainty that this was an intentional head shot, but like I've discussed with the hits from the behind, the intention doesn't matter...a player should and must be in control of themselves, or at least responsible for themselves at all times when not in the act of shooting/passing/playing the puck.
-The end of the game scrum was interesting. The linesman seems to be toying with the puck (as they are often guilty of doing) and the players square off. A ref says "is this the way you want to end it?" followed by saying "drop the puck".
-As I've said, I would prefer that the teams shake their hands for this special event. A regular season game is not more heated than playoff series, and they are expected to do so after that. It is stricly a "for TV" moment, but this league needs some of those. Neither team did themselves any favors. The Pens look like babies, and the Caps look like sore winners by saying "make 'em come to us, we'll wait.".
That last point actually leads me to my summation of this episode, and the series as a whole. One thing I found was that I gained more respect for the Caps players and coaches. Respect is an important part of sports, and it is often overlooked. While this series documented the ebbs and flows of life in hockey, the end of the Winter Classic was a black eye on all of it. I'm sure many Pens fans hate the Caps. I don't. Okay, actually I do...but I also love them. I love their style of play, their intensity, and the fact that they are a rival of the team that I deeply love. They are good for the sport. I respect them. Respect for the opponent is something that is lost in today's sports landscape. Without the opponent, you don't have competition, and subsequently, don't have a sport. Every time I see the Capitals, I think of the interrogation of The Joker in "The Dark Knight" when Batman asks "why do you want to kill me?". The Joker laughs and says "I don't want to kill you. What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No, no, no. No. You complete me." As much as any other opponent, I truly think the Pens and Caps complete each other. What a treat it has been to peek behind the curtain for a month.