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Final episode of '24/7' is perfect Winter Classic finale

by Bob Condor
The HBO "24/7" producers  who filmed professional hockey and the NHL Winter Classic during the past two seasons have emphasized that each episode is an opportunity to introduce new characters while adding to the storylines of recurring characters.

The final episode of HBO's "24/7 Flyers/Rangers: Road to the NHL Winter Classic" that aired Thursday is no exception.

One of the new characters: New York Rangers video coach Jerry Dineen, who has 18 years with the Rangers and four brothers working in the sport, including Florida head coach Kevin. Jerry Dineen is running the video for a 10 a.m. game-day film session in a Florida hotel conference room for a Rangers team that lost its previous game against the Washington Capitals and now faces coach John Tortorella's wrath about each goal against. Tortorella starts by reminding Brian Boyle about not trying to force a play that in this case resulted in a turnover and a goal. Next on the hot seat is defenseman Anton Stralman, a fifth-year player who hears compliments about stepping up his role with his new team -- then gets a flat-out challenge from Tortorella to do more.

A couple more players are zinged, including young defenseman Michael Del Zotto, one of the recurring characters in "24/7." It's great stuff, bringing you inside the game's strategy with intimate access. Stuff that moves you to the edge of your seat if you are a Rangers fan, or just love discovering how teams tick, or both. 

Then the video stops. Not good. So not good. Tortorella is clearly unhappy and starting to rant. There is palpable tension in the room, tamped only a bit by one attempt at humor. Dineen is trying some things. Finally, in what seems like 10 minutes instead of one, Dineen fixes the problem and players applaud. An unlikely "24/7" character is born.

Tortorella, of course, was a steady presence in this year's series (it pains most hockey fans to realize that this season's version of "24/7" won't have more episodes). He is at his most vibrant in Episode 4 when explaining from his plane seat why Sean Avery was waived and during his talk to the Rangers players before the team went out to score two third-period goals to win the 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, 3-2. The latter will display just how single-minded Tortorella is about his guys in the New York shirts when he admits not knowing one Flyer's actual name. 

Tortorella's counterpart behind the Flyers' bench is Peter Laviolette, who over four weeks looks in charge and in sync with his hockey club. In Episode 4, some of Laviolette's best spots – of which there are many – include skating a lap at practice (something he appears to do often) alongside Max Talbot before the former Penguins Cup winner returns to Pittsburgh for the first time as a Flyer. Laviolette's parting words make Talbot laugh hard and loud. Viewers will also like Laviolette at home with family on New Year's Eve. It's not exactly in the category of Ryan Callahan's grandmother, but it is heart-pulling and human. An agonizing silent moment with the Philly coach after the Classic loss is vintage "24/7."

Many viewers will decide this is the best "24/7" episode of this season, and over the last two Classics. Hard to argue, especially when you see and hear the closing words of the script, another work of genius by writer Aaron Cohen. Don't let anyone recite the ending for you; watch it yourself. It starts with "Never get caught telling a hockey player that it is just a game…" and unfolds strong and hard to the net.

There are more scenes from characters that viewers have come to know during the past four weeks: Ilya Bryzgalov opens the episode by reciting the scores of his three games, all losses: "1-5, 2-4, 0-6. How do you think I feel?" Avery, before he was waived, is at breakfast in sunglasses, upset he can't get Internet service. Teammate Brandon Prust is heard discussing on ice at the end of road versus Florida on why he didn't do more about Michael Del Zotto getting sucker-punched. It's because "I didn't want to get suspended for the Winter Classic," said Prust. Brian Boyle pulls off a funny baseball-chatter bit while in a Citizens Bank Park dugout waiting to get on the ice for the Jan. 1 outdoor practice the day before the Classic. Rangers backup goalie Marty Biron makes fun of a vital teammate who's wearing eye black for the outdoor practice. Mike Rupp, one of the favorites to be a recurring character, scores two big goals, of all things, in the Classic.

Claude Giroux gets the final words. The Philly star has clearly established himself as one of the top players in the NHL -- arguably the best of the best this season. He suffered a concussion during the "24/7" run, endured the rehab/cognitive testing/medical consults only to return with a four-point night in Episode 3.

Here in the final episode, Giroux – who also scored in the Classic – is not to be missed talking up some trash and fun before the third period of the Winter Classic with teammates. Earlier, we see Giroux in momentary pause in front of New York hunk, er, goalie Henrik Lundqvist. He uses a garden-variety profanity to address "Henrik," then goads the superstar goaltender to let Giroux score "just one tonight, just one." It is a swift exchange -- funny, authentic, private and "HBO 24/7" through and through.
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