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Classic preview highlights Episode 3 of '24/7'

By Bob Condor - NHL.com Editor-in-Chief

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Classic preview highlights Episode 3 of '24/7'
Episode 3 of HBO's "24/7" is highlighted by a Winter Classic warmup, with the Rangers and Flyers battling in New York 10 days before they take it outdoors.
Early in Wednesday's Episode 3 of HBO's "24/7 Flyers/Rangers: Road to the NHL Winter Classic," Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette is on practice ice in Dallas talking to Claude Giroux about whether the star forward is ready to return from a concussion.

When asked by his coach, Giroux says he feels good, ready to go, but adds he doesn't want to hurt the team if his skills aren't quite primed after a layoff.

"You're kidding me, right?" asks Laviolette. The coach tells the player the Flyers call "G" that he looks great, 'like a million bucks."

Freeze-frame the moment: This season's "24/7" viewers have been inside the trainer's room during Giroux's rehab and snooped on the medical diagnosis with the team doctors. In Episode 3, we hear that private practice conversation with Laviolette (who is wearing a mic) and Giroux, then see a trainer place Giroux's helmet at a locker between the helmets and lockers of Philly linemates Jaromir Jagr and Scott Hartnell the next night during pregame.

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It's great inside stuff. Fans next get to listen in to Laviolette, the Jagr-Giroux-Hartnell line and forward Danny Briere hold their own small psych-up session before heading onto the ice to face the Dallas Stars. Giroux has an appropriate 10-gallon-sized night, scoring his team's first goal and assisting on the other three in an easy 4-1 win. For his part, Giroux, wearing a mic during the game, is self-deprecating when the Stars score the game's first goal on his line's first shift of the night.

The New York Rangers, Philadelphia's opponent for next Monday's Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic (1 p.m. ET, NBC), continue a strong HBO run by disposing of their local rivals, the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders, in consecutive games during the week before Christmas. The game action will satisfy viewers, especially with a closer look at how young defenseman Michael Del Zotto has adjusted from a disappointing sophomore season -- and which new Rangers veteran has helped the 21-year-old the most.

But perhaps even more must-see for Rangers fans (and Santa fans) is which Ranger is Claus himself at a team party designated by Brad Richards to be an ugly sweater party "that is more Halloween" than planned. Brian Boyle is the chief elf and brings matinee looks and, well, a cool-guy kookiness to the whole thing. The costumes (more than just sweaters) are not to be missed.

Earlier in the week, the Rangers gather at another holiday party to skate at the Bryant Park rink in Manhattan not far from Grand Central Terminal. You will find out why Derek Stepan's girlfriend is from Minnesota but nonetheless cannot skate. There is also a return appearance of Landon Girardi, defenseman Dan's 21-month-old son who dons skates for the first time at the party.

All of the frivolity serves a precursor to Episode 3's main storyline: the Dec. 23 Flyers-Ranger game at Madison Square Garden that will determine which of the two rivals will lead the division during the two-day Christmas break. As the teams get ready to take the ice -- with superb cuts back and forth to pregame talks from Laviolette and Rangers coach John Tortorella -- Jagr gets off one of the episode's better lines when he kids linemate Giroux that "scoring four points here [Madison Square Garden] is hard." Dramatic pause. "I did it," says Jagr, grinning.

The game is filled with trademark "24/7" moments that provide not only unprecedented access but a deeper understanding of how the game is played and savored at the NHL level: Flyers rookie Matt Read takes a hard hit; when he returns to the bench Laviolette asks Read if he is OK, then, when he gets an affirmative answer, the coach says, "That was awesome."

Near the end of the first period, the Flyers' Tom Sestito is taunting the New York bench, claiming he will knock any or all of the Rangers silly or something to that effect. Richards, New York's big-money free-agent acquisition, chirps back about Sestito's stature of "playing one NHL game" and "this is fantasy camp for you." Note: Sestito to date actually has played 16 games over four NHL seasons.

During the next period, Mike Rupp tells the Flyers' Jody Shelley, a former Ranger, that he would scrap with him but that the Philly forward has "no relevance to the game." Later in the same period, star goalie Henrik Lundqvist is skating back from the Rangers' bench after a timeout. His teammates encourage him with "settle down Hank" but as Lundqvist skates past the Flyers' bench there is, ahem, some colorful dismissal of the Swede.

Laviolette, clearly one of this episode's three stars, at one point tells his assistant coaches that "I don't like anything about this" when the game is still 0-0; turns out he is right as the Flyers lose 4-2 to set up the outdoor rematch next week.

At another point, Laviolette yells out, "Strong plays, strong decisions, check hard," to his players during a game stoppage. The comment sums up HBO's approach and follow-through to another hour of the can't-miss NHL series.
 
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