By Tracee Hamilton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2011; 9:41 PM
The final installment of HBO's examination of the rivalry between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins airs at 10 p.m. Wednesday. Finally, we'll learn who won the Winter Classic.
Okay, we already know that. The arch-rival National Hockey League teams met on New Year's Night at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, the fourth in an annual series of outdoor games that were intended to be a nod to the sport's past.
Spoiler alert: The Capitals will win, 3-1.
Of course, the outcome was merely one plot point among many in HBO's four-part "24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic" series, whose producers were given complete behind-the-scenes access to both teams during more than six weeks of filming. Cameras filmed the locker rooms between periods and immediately after games - sessions that are usually off-limits to outsiders, including the media - as well as plane trips and team dinners, Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations, massages and - not for the squeamish - close-ups of team doctors stitching up bloody gashes mid-game.
If you're a fan of the Caps, Penguins or hockey in general, you've probably watched the first three episodes, you'll watch the fourth and you probably didn't learn anything you didn't already know about hockey in any of them. But you got some inside looks at some of your favorite players' personalities, and you got a feel for the rhythm of their lives. And you found out that Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau isn't always the happy-go-lucky guy you've seen on TV, hawking cars and copiers and carpet cleaners. Not since "The Sopranos" has HBO given us so many F-words in a 60-minute show. George Carlin would have been impressed by the expletive-slinging coach.
For those who aren't fans of the teams or the game and haven't seen the first three parts, that's no excuse to skip the fourth. We say this with confidence even though no screening copy was available. It's not like missing an episode of, say, "Fringe."
To sum up the series so far: Episode 1 taught us winning is better than losing. (We already learned that from Nuke Laloosh in "Bull Durham.") Episode 2 told us momentum is tricky. (Again, territory covered by "Bull Durham.")
Episode 3 - find it in reruns before the Wednesday finale, or go to HBO On Demand - is as good a depiction of the actual game as you'll find. The highlight is Pittsburgh's 3-2 victory over Washington in a shootout at Verizon Center last month. And if you watch those scenes and still don't like hockey, well, then you never will and the rest of us promise to quit bugging you about it.
Elsewhere, one of my favorite scenes showed a "punking" of two youngster players by Penguins veterans during a road trip. While the two were at dinner, teammates removed every item of furniture from their hotel room and arranged it in the hall by the elevator. Surveying the results, one player said: "We're going to find out who did it and probably do nothing about it."
We also see Pittsburgh Coach Dan Bylsma shoveling snow from his suburban sidewalks, then taking a break to play a soccer video game with his son. And, like many husbands, Boudreau ferries his sons to Tysons Corner for some last-minute Christmas shopping for his wife's gift; he is puzzled when they don't want to take an ice cream break at 10:30 a.m.
Saturday night's Winter Classic game provided a perfect exclamation point to HBO's storytelling arc. When the series' filming began, the Caps were embarking on their longest losing streak in years, while the Penguins were in the midst of an impressive winning streak. Their star, Sidney Crosby, was on a scoring streak of his own. The Caps were struggling and in despair. The Penguins were happy and loose. The contrast couldn't have been scripted any better.
By the third episode, the Caps were coming out of their funk, the Penguins' streak had ended and the scales were evening a bit. But Crosby was still hot on the ice and the perfect all-Canadian boy off it, and Washington's counterpart and star, Alex Ovechkin, was none of those things.
I'm sure producers hoped those two would have epic performances Saturday night, so the finale would be a Crosby-vs.-Ovechkin battle. That's where the players went off script; neither superstar scored Saturday night.
But HBO being HBO, it had an alternate ending ready: redemption. There the Capitals delivered, and the filmmakers had to have been pleased, especially after being at least partly blamed for the team's slump by worried fans.
"We kind of like them now," Boudreau said of the HBO crew after his team's victory. "I mean, we didn't like them much at the beginning of the month, but I think everything's worked out."
Yes, everything worked out for everyone. HBO got the personalities and high drama to once again produce compelling television. The Penguins came off as a close-knit bunch of hard-working family men, and Americans love those qualities in their sports heroes. The Capitals got a big win on national TV - and they'll get to win it over and over again on pay cable. Plus they finally found something Crosby can't do - grow a decent mustache.
And viewers get yet another quality series from HBO, which is seldom streaky and never loses momentum. No wonder Boudreau didn't like them much.
24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic finale (one hour) airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. on HBO.