Wednesday night's third episode of the HBO four-part "24/7 Penguins-Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic" reality series starts with a jolt. The Capitals' Mike Knuble is in the dentist's chair and your zoom-lens view is smack into the right winger's mouth and lower jaw and spit cup and, well, you get the idea.
Knuble's words are layered over the dental visit we all dread and we all have experienced in our white-knuckle version.
"I'm thankful the only thing it [a puck to the face] did is break my jaw," said Knuble, who missed a handful of games before returning to the ice. "A couple inches higher and I would have lost my whole bottom row of teeth."
Then the only-a-hockey-player kicker: "I would have to be in a while" if that happened, said Knuble, not really lamenting the loss of teeth as much as the dubious gain of dental hours.
That's just the opening minute. This episode simply rips off the starting blocks from there: "24/7" cameras in short order ride along with Washington's Brooks Laich as he tries to see if his rental car has any pickup while driving to a home game. Next is Scott Hannan in his new house (completing a story line from episodes 1 and 2) with his wife and 10-month-old son, complete with the toddler trying to walk between mom and dad for three steps without falling.
The cameras roll on. Caps fans chanting "We want Pittsburgh! We want Pittsburgh!" in the final minutes of a laugher win. Penguins defenseman Ben Lovejoy scoring his first NHL goal, getting into a scrap, then taking a puck to the side of his face that requires stitches (the customary "24/7" front-row seat for that) and later in the typically off-limits training room Pens star Evgeni Malkin stops by to tell Lovejoy "you look awesome" and, full quote here "girls love."
Malkin, by the way, has fired off some of the funniest lines of the first three weeks of the HBO series, not unlike those laser wrist shots he takes on NHL goalies.
In another car, Pittsburgh's Max Talbot is admitting he circled the Dec. 23 Pens at Caps on his calendar at the beginning of the season. This episode covers the buildup for that game, plus a can't-take-your-eyes-off-the-screen-or-you-will-miss-something segment on what turned out to be a 3-2 Penguins win decided by a seven-round shootout. One highlight here is the rapid back-and-forth of what coaches Bruce Boudreau of the Caps and Dan Bylsma of the Pens were telling them team during game-day strategy sessions, pregame and between periods.
For instance, you will learn how the Boudreau suggest the Caps can mess with Malkin's potent offensive game and how Pittsburgh's Bylsma talks to his team repeatedly about how to foil the offensively-gifted Capitals defenseman Mike Green. Especially tantalizing is that the coaches' urgings will be fully revealed to the other teams during episode 3 and, ahem, in time for Saturday's NHL Winter Classic (the focus of the Jan. 5 "24/7" finale).
And if you don’t think the players are watching the show, then listen closely to Penguins center Mike Rupp's commentary and dig on a Caps opponent as he is dressed in an elf's suit at home on Christmas morning (there is a flurry of holiday look-ins from both teams; the best arguably is Boudreau's last-minute mall shopping for his wife).
The NHL's Hockey Operations department and HBO collaborated to put a microphone on League referees during games over the last three weeks (and will do it again for the Classic). The results in episode 3 are simply magic for any sports fan who wonders just what game officials are saying — or hearing RATHER LOUDLY — from players and coaches.
Plus, viewers will not want to miss the on-ice reactions of both the other-worldly Sidney Crosby and from-another-galaxy Alex Ovechkin. Crosby's rant (yes, believe it) for a non-call and Ovi's outrage about being called for tripping are must viewing. You will forget, at least fleetingly, you are watching on a screen and not skating alongside the two stars.
There's so much more here, including a rare and engaging look inside the NHL's video review room in Toronto when Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury's makes a glove-swipe save on his goal line in overtime. Some or all of the puck might have cleared the goal line — the whole puck has to cross — but Fleury oversized mitt barricades any chances of seeing that from all camera angles. It is ruled a non-goal on the ice, but, as per usual, the NHL reviews all goals in the Toronto video room. Replays prove inconclusive, so the on-ice call stands, but not until '24/7' viewers get a groundbreaking perspective on how Hockey Ops officials in Toronto can talk to on-ice officials in all 30 NHL arenas. Cooler heads prevailed and this show can't get much cooler.
Or can it?