By Ryan Stieg, AllPuck.com
All good things must come to an end and unfortunately, that statement applies to every season of HBO’s “24/7: Road to the Winter Classic.” Just like last year, the series ends with a great hockey game and leaves you actually looking forward to the end of the season – so you can tune in to the next Winter Classic.
The final episode begins with some foreshadowing. The first involves the most lovable character on the series, Ilya Bryzgalov. Over the last few games, Bryzgalov has lost confidence in himself and is basically falling apart mentally. There are no witty philosophies in this episode, just Bryzgalov staring into the abyss every time he is on camera. It’s really a sad sight to see; everyone who watched the Winter Classic knows that Bryzgalov gets benched before the game and doesn’t participate.
The other sense of foreshadowing comes in the form of Rangers forward Sean Avery. One of the NHL’s most controversial stars, Avery has been almost nonexistent throughout the entire series while seeing little ice time. Whatever playing time he gets, Avery doesn’t make the most of it.
Avery finally makes his presence felt when he goes out to breakfast with Brandon Prust. Here, he shows the rest of the hockey world why he is hated by just about everybody. Avery, a wealthy man, wonders if the orange juice he is being served is unlimited. Seriously, Sean? What if it wasn’t unlimited? Are you going to get up and leave because another two bucks is just too much for you? Later on in the episode, the Rangers release Avery and I’m willing to be nobody shed a tear for him.
The episode then shifts back to the Flyers, who are heading to Pittsburgh to play the rival Penguins. This is Max Talbot’s first trip back to the Steel City and it’s also Jaromir Jagr’s first trip back in years. They were met with very different receptions upon their return.
Talbot ended up getting a video tribute and a huge ovation from the Pittsburgh faithful and you can see by the expression on his face that it clearly means a lot to them. Jagr on the other hand, gets booed by the same fans that he won two Stanley Cups for and gets to watch them wear shirts with his number and the name “Jagov” on the back.
The Flyers end up beating the Penguins with both returning players picking up goals, but the most exciting incident in the game comes when Tyler Kennedy spears Talbot in the testicles – showing viewers that not everybody in Pittsburgh was thrilled with Talbot’s return.
The series then switches back to the Rangers, who are facing off against the Florida Panthers. The Broadway Blueshirts have their own physical incident when Florida’s Tomas Kopecky sucker-punches Michael Del Zotto. Mike Rupp, who as we’ve seen never backs down from a fight, comes to Del Zotto’s aid and proceeds to pound the tar out of Kopecky while repeatedly calling the sucker puncher a “bleeping pile of s**t.”
We then end up seeing a gruesome sight at the Flyers practice. Wayne Simmonds takes a shot to the hand from Claude Giroux and has to get blood drawn from underneath his fingernail. It’s not for the squeamish.
After practice, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette returns to South Jersey to hang out with friends and family and we get the chance to see a sign on his dinner table that says: “We interrupt this marriage to bring you hockey season.” I’m sure I’m not alone when I see this sign hanging inside my future home.
From here, we see both teams checking out the now-completed rink at Citizens Bank Park. One of the best parts comes when the Rangers’ Brian Boyle takes a page out of the Ferris Bueller playbook and performs a “swing battah” routine from the third-base dugout.
And then, finally, the Winter Classic is upon us. We see some cool behind-the-scenes stuff like Marc Staal getting an “A” on his jersey for the game and Liam, the little boy with cerebral palsy who we met in previous episodes, enters the ballpark. Also, Laviolette tells his team that “they only get one crack at this” in his pregame speech, which made me laugh out loud because he apparently forgot that most of his team was at the Winter Classic against Boston two years ago.
The game itself is covered phenomenally by the cameras and narrated very well by Liev Schrieber. We also see Giroux ask Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist if he can “have just one goal tonight,” and Scott Hartnell get into numerous verbal scrums with Rangers players.
Brayden Schenn scores his first career goal to start off the scoring and Rupp ends up scoring two – one of which he celebrates by performing the Jagr salute. This is hated by the Flyers bench – especially Giroux, who rips Rupp a new one when discussing it in the faceoff circle.
The game’s greatest moment is the dramatic penalty shot with just seconds remaining in the final frame. The Rangers cover up the puck in the crease and Daniel Briere gets a chance to beat Lundqvist and tie the game. With great music playing in the background, the penalty shot is set in slow motion. We watch Briere skate up close to the net and try to beat Lundqvist five-hole but the Swede slams the door shut and the Rangers notch the victory.
The series then shows the scenes in the different locker rooms with the Rangers erupting in the joy and the Flyers sitting quietly in disappointment. Soon after, it shows a montage of clips from the season and ends on one of the best notes I’ve ever seen, an essay read by Schrieber.
“Never get caught telling a hockey player ‘it’s just a game.’
“Never get caught trying to explain to him all the things in the world that matter so much more. His mind might well acknowledge the truth to your point, but his soul would be powerless to accept it, considering the immensity of what he gives to the sport and the immeasurability of all it offers in return.
“Nothing ever feels as perfect as a moment of flawlessness on the ice.” (My favorite part of the essay).
“No bond is as strong as one that compels brothers to bleed for one another.
“Not many leaders are as this versed in the craft of motivation. Not many pursuits can evoke such visions of brilliance.
“This is why it hurts so much when skill falls short of what the will desires.
“This is why it’s so unforgettable when absolute passion yields ultimate reward.
“And that’s all still just a start of what the game can do to you.
“Hockey may in fact be just a game, but it’s also who they are.”
I actually rewound that clip so I could hear that essay again. I couldn’t think of a better way to describe how much hockey means to those who play it, or a better way to end this year’s series. I can’t wait to see what next season has in store.