There are a lot of positive takeaways for Washington Capitals fans in Wednesday's second episode of HBO's four-part "24/7 Penguins-Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic" reality series. While an up-close perspective on breaking the team's eight-game winless streak is a high point-- complete with locker-room hoots and fist pumps after beating Ottawa 3-2 -- the peak encouragement comes each time Caps general manager George McPhee is on screen.
McPhee simply looks and feels in charge. He is clear as those laser-blue eyes of his that good teams go through rough stretches and that, no, he is not going to discuss coach Bruce Boudreau's job status. The latter is less a topic now that the Caps ride a two-game victory streak in the much-awaited dust-up Thursday night when Pittsburgh comes to visit (NHL Network-U.S., 7 p.m.). Better yet, McPhee adroitly explains just why he won’t talk about Boudreau while HBO drops radio sports-talk voices into the footage.
McPhee makes a point of saying he steers clear of spending too much time in the players' dressing room to allow the team to jell on its own virtues and relationships. Viewers will be drawn to McPhee's compassion talking over an overtime loss with Boudreau in the G.M.'s office.
For his part, Boudreau makes a relevant point with his team during a locker room speech that "Chicago lost nine straight" last season and, oh by the way, the Blackhawks also won the Stanley Cup. Watch yourself to decide whether that fact hits the mark with the Capitals players.
"I hate to lose," Boudreau tells the cameras during a separate sit-down. "I've got my standards."
Another encouraging moment for Caps fans: The team is loose at a team dinner the night before the Ottawa schneid-breaker, which includes a lobster ending up in one player's jacket (hint: it's the same guy who gets into an on-ice scrap the next night, which HBO's producers clearly must have enjoyed joining together in concurrent scenes).
While the Caps are regrouping just in time for Thursday's home game (you will see lots of it in the Dec. 23 episode "24/7") and the 2011 Winter Classic outdoors on New Year's Day (the main attraction of the Jan. 5 finale episode), the Penguins endure a two-game losing skid during this second-week episode before breaking out themselves with a 6-1 head-clearing rout of Phoenix. The Evgeni Malkin storyline arcs upward from being injured in last week's episode to a five-point night against the Coyotes. You will learn why Penguins teammates awarded "Geno" a shovel for his efforts.
There's lots more here for both hockey fans and any sports fans in a series that has instantly established that being inside a coaches-only meeting (Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis and Malkin are all graded) or watching Caps super-global-star Alex Ovechkin get served his mother's stuffed cabbage for lunch is the rule rather the exception: You will discover that Washington forward Matt Hendricks was urged by a friend to get in more scraps to keep his NHL job; you see Boudreau talking to Ovechkin and fellow star Mike Green in the usually off-limits training room; the Pittsburgh equipment staff turns out the lights in the team's locker room after a long night and early morning -- but not until revealing the secret for controlling the "notorious stench of hockey pads" -- and viewers go home with Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma to hear from his wife and see where his 11-year-old son shoots pucks at the house.
You won't want to miss an up-tempo segment with Pens owner and former Cup winner Mario Lemieux playing in "his first hockey game in five years," skating in the daily staff pick-up game to prepare for an alumni game Dec. 31, the day before the Classic. Both Lemieux and Bylsma wear microphones, and the results are pitch-perfect.
Another of many lush moments involves NHL referee Stephen Walkom wearing a mike and telling players and fellow officials to "let them go" when Penguins' Arron Asham and New York Rangers Sean Avery square off. Walkom even clears the net out of the way so neither scrapper falls or skates into it. Cool stuff.
Hard to believe, but you get the feeling the first two weeks will be outdone by what's coming up on the next two Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET (with repeats each night at 11 p.m. ET). The only thing better than following these two teams along for unprecedented access during regular-season games is to be there in the dressing rooms, coaches rooms, training rooms, dining rooms, you-name-it rooms while the two teams face each other twice in a week.