While the first three episodes were about two teams struggling under the microscope, the finale of HBO's "24/7 Red Wings-Maple Leafs: Road to the NHL Winter Classic" was the story of how one team fought back from the adversity to ring in 2014 and start the second half of the season with the right foot forward.
With the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic as the featured game, HBO showed the snowy sights and offered some never-before-heard sounds of the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 shootout win against the Detroit Red Wings at Michigan Stadium on New Year's Day.
The win was the Maple Leafs' third in a row after they had lost seven of the first nine games played under the eye of HBO's watchful cameras. The loss was the Red Wings' second in a row and ninth in 12 games (3-6-3) with HBO following them around.
Not long after Tyler Bozak was shown scoring the shootout winner, narrator Liev Schreiber, playing off remarks made in his opening monologue from the first episode, talked about the striking differences between the Red Wings and Maple Leafs as they started the second halves of their season in the NHL's frigid outdoor event.
"For a club like Detroit there's a patience that's embedded in the culture and a knowledge of how much hockey is left," Schreiber says. "But for a franchise with a history like Toronto's any win on a stage like this is to be savored and built upon."
On Dec. 7, when HBO started shooting game footage for the series, Detroit was third in the Atlantic Division and had a four-point cushion on the fifth-place Maple Leafs. When the cameras left the dressing rooms after the Winter Classic, Toronto was in fourth place, one point ahead of the Red Wings.
But getting to that point made for some riveting, behind-the-scenes television. HBO did not disappoint in documenting the days leading up to the Winter Classic and the game itself.
It started with visuals of the Winter Classic jerseys being made and switched to Detroit, where captain Henrik Zetterberg was preparing to return to the lineup from an injury that kept him out of the lineup for 11 games.
Zetterberg practiced the day before the Red Wings played at the Florida Panthers and told assistant coach Tom Renney that his groins were sore and it felt like training camp again. Goran Zetterberg, Henrik's father who was making the trip to Florida with nine other Red Wings' dads, promised that his son would be fine.
"He is back," the elder Zetterberg says. "You can see it tomorrow."
Zetterberg scored a goal in Detroit's 4-3 win against the Panthers. His dad shared a beer with Red Wings coach Mike Babcock after the game.
A return from injury also was the theme the first time we saw the Maple Leafs in the fourth episode. Bozak missed 12 straight games with an injury, but he was getting set to play against the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 29, leaving Toronto's coaches to figure out how to set its lineup for the game.
Bozak typically plays between Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk, but Nazem Kadri was occupying that spot. The coaches met to discuss it and HBO revealed that they were initially contemplating dropping Kadri to the fourth line, but ended with him on the second line.
With Bozak back, viewers finally got to meet Kessel, the Maple Leafs' mystery man who says very little off the ice but lets his play speak loudly on it.
He has a posh downtown high-rise and lets Bozak live with him for free. Bozak, remember, signed a five-year, $21 million contract this past summer, but he doesn't have to pay any rent or mortgage because Kessel likes having him as a roommate.
The Maple Leafs beat the Hurricanes because the roommates instantly found their chemistry again. Bozak had three assists and Kessel had two goals in the 5-2 win.
There was more of the return-from-injury theme in Nashville, where Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard played on Dec. 30 after missing eight games. His dad, James, was on hand to see his son struggle in his return.
Howard gave up five goals on 28 shots in a 6-4 loss to the Nashville Predators. Babcock kept him in for the entire game despite how much he was fighting the puck and quickly said that Howard was his starting goalie for the Winter Classic.
Ah yes, finally, the Winter Classic, the game the entire series is built around. The footage from Ann Arbor, Mich., included the New Year's Eve block party. Some fans were in red, others in blue, but they were all ready to be part of history on Jan. 1.
"They'll be part of something bigger than their sport has ever seen," Schreiber says. "They could think of no better way to usher in the new year."
The snow coming down on the 105,491 fans inside Michigan Stadium is the takeaway visual from this year's Winter Classic. HBO made sure to put both on a pedestal through the players' eyes.
Close-ups of Todd Bertuzzi, Pavel Datsyuk, Joffrey Lupul and Zetterberg are shown. They're on the ice, but looking into the stands moments before the puck is supposed to drop to start the much-anticipated game.
"They'd be forgiven if in these moments their focus wanders to where they came from, how they got here and all the game has given them," Schreiber says.
Then the game begins. Kessel complains his toes are cold. Zetterberg tells the official, "It's awesome." Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, who earlier in the episode is shown signing his seven-year, $49 million contract, simply says, "Beautiful."
The first big hit is made. It's controversial. Lupul cross-checks Red Wings forward Patrick Eaves and knocks him out of the game.
"Did I get him high?" Lupul is heard asking. "I cross-checked? I didn't mean to."
More action. More intensity. More snow.
"Forty minutes in, the sense of wonder has long since worn off," Schreiber says. "It's a tie game for the taking, clear from every rush up ice."
The game goes to overtime tied 2-2. Overtime solves nothing.
It's time for the shootout, but before it starts Babcock is seen and heard reminding Alfredsson and Datsyuk that they beat Maple Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier on the glove side in the shootout the last time these teams met. Lupul gives van Riemsdyk the scouting report on Howard that he got from Maple Leafs backup goalie James Reimer.
"Reims says he's aggressive," Lupul says, "comes out far but backs in fast."
Alfredsson goes stick side and Bernier makes the stop. Datsyuk beats Bernier with a glove-side backhand. The scouting report didn't prevent van Riemsdyk from trying to dangle on his attempt, but he couldn't score. Lupul listened and went with a straight, hard shot through the five-hole.
Bozak saw Lupul and went with a hard shot as well, low and to the stick side, to win the game, pushing the Maple Leafs one point ahead of the Red Wings for fourth place in the Atlantic Division standings.
Toronto won the battle of adversity, but we'll see where these two teams go next now that HBO's cameras are off and out of the room.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
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