Must-See TV

I have a hard time deciding what my favorite show on TV is. There’s The Office, The League, Friday Night Lights and Curb Your Enthusiasm. If I could only watch one, I honestly have no idea which show I would pick. But I think that problem was solved on Wednesday night with the debut of 24/7 Penguins-Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic, which is easily the best show on TV and it instantly took over the No. 1 spot on my TV power rankings.

If you didn’t see it, watch it … now. Stop whatever you’re doing and watch it because it’s that good. And if you did watch it and aren’t more excited for next Wednesday instead of next Friday because of it, then I don’t know what’s wrong with you.

The series is a combination of every 24/7 boxing series and Hard Knocks on steroids. That’s how good it is. I was sold on the show well before Maxine Nightingale’s “Right Back Where We Started From” came on in the middle of the Penguins’ road trip, but as someone who could recite lines from Slapshot before I could recite the Pledge of Allegiance, the incorporation of the song took the show to another level.

Nothing is played up because HBO is there. Those were real F-bombs you heard for 60 minutes, not the overly exaggerated fake F-bombs of Rex Ryan to become to a character on a TV show. And HBO couldn’t have started filming at a better time with the Penguins being the hottest team in the league and only the Islanders playing worse than the Capitals are right now.

I’m sure Penguins fans had a lot of fun reliving their winning streak behind the scenes, and Capitals fans probably took out their emotions on some household items as a result of the team’s slide. But there might not have been a more angry fan base than Bruins fans who had to watch Matt Cooke having fun living life and saying, “There is no easy ice,” when he is on the ice, knowing that Marc Savard is still feeling the side effects of the nasty elbow Cooke gave him last season.

Within the main story line of “Penguins vs. Capitals” and their paths to the Winter Classic are other story lines that, as a fan, help to enhance the show and make you pick a side when watching it. The show isn’t supposed to be about good vs. bad or to sway you in favor of one team, but if you’re not a fan of either team, which I’m not, there are three separate stories embedded into the show that will help you decide which team to pull for in the 2011 Winter Classic.

Sidney Crosby vs. Alexander Ovechkin
These two players will be linked and connected throughout their entire careers, and if you’re a hockey fan, you’re either a Crosby guy or an Ovechkin guy. You can’t be both. You have to pick one. I’m a Crosby guy and have been from Day One, though I am pretty much alone on this among my friends.

When Evgeni Malkin is watching the game against Toronto on TV and laughs while saying, “Sid … Look,” as Crosby joins a scrum in front of the net after a whistle, I couldn’t help, but think of all the cheap shots and slew foots the Penguins committed against the Rangers in the 2006-07 Eastern Conference semifinals. But being able to play that way and get away with it is part of the game and a big part of the Penguins’ game, and it’s what makes them good. And it’s what makes me like them and like watching them play.

Is Crosby chippy and even dirty? Yes. Does he excessively whine to refs and dive? Yes. Does he get into scrums in front of the net after whistles because he knows that he won’t get a penalty and that no one will touch him then? Yes. Is he the best player in the world? Yes.

Capitals assistant coach Dean Evason made it a point to call Ovechkin “the greatest player in the world” during his locker room rant when the Rangers scored more goals against the Capitals than the Jets did points against the Dolphins last Sunday (7-6).

“Our best player is fighting! The greatest player in the world!”

I understand that Evason was trying to make the point that the Capitals were embarrassing themselves and there’s no need for Ovechkin to be fighting when the team is getting shutout, but was it necessary to call Ovechkin “the greatest player in the world?” Sure, that’s Evason’s opinion and he spends every day around Ovechkin, so I would expect his opinion to be skewed, and I’m probably making too big of a deal about nothing, but do you think the Pittsburgh coaching staff is telling Crosby he is the best player in the world? No, because he knows he is.

Ovechkin is the most exciting player in the world, but to me, he isn’t the greatest. (And how about his weird tramp stamp tattoo?) When he’s on the ice you pay attention because he could do something you have never seen before, but that doesn’t make him the best. Sean Avery is also an exciting player because when he’s on the ice he might jump someone or commit an act that forces the NHL to create a new rule overnight, but sadly, being exciting doesn’t make you “the greatest.”

Dan Bylsma vs. Bruce Boudreau
It’s hard to know exactly who Dan Bylsma and Bruce Boudreau are from one episode because Bylsma is in the middle of 12-game winning streak while Boudreau can’t even find a way to beat the Panthers. At the end of the premiere, narrator Liev Schreiber says, “Teams are never as bad as they appear during their lowest points, and never as good as they seem during their highest ones,” but right now, that’s all we have to go off of when evaluating the two head coaches.

There isn’t much to dislike about Dan Bylsma. He seems to have found the perfect medium between being an imposing authoritative figure and still being able to have fun with his players. He isn’t exactly their friend, but he isn’t just a coach. His pregame and intermission speeches are solid, and the little nuances (the clapping for the announcing of the staring lineup) and games (Mustache Boy shootout) he has instituted into the team’s practices and locker room environment are unique and entertaining. The only real downfall for Bylsma in the first episode was watching him take one-timers at practice.

I’m not sure Bruce Boudreau is going to make it through the whole season of 24/7. Once you start making positives out of losses and tell your team to build off a losing effort, well the end can’t be far away. Are the Capitals’ struggles all because of Boudreau? No, but neither are the three straight division titles that HBO seemed to make it sound like. His biggest problem is that he has terrible goaltending. Yet somehow, he has the intestinal fortitude to criticize Henrik Lundqvist and say, “Lundqvist likes to come out of the net” before the game against the Rangers.

I always wonder how NHL coaches are able to keep their emotions in check on the bench and always have the same serious and puzzled face like they’re watching the State of the Union address. Rarely do you ever see NHL coaches clap or fist pump after a goal, and the only time you ever see them talking during a game is when they are trying to sort out a mess of penalty minutes with the ref. The other night the Red Wings lost to the Kings 5-0 and as soon as the game ended the cameras showed Mike Babcock, and after being shutout at home, he looked exactly the same as he would if he had been on the winning end of the shutout. Bruce Boudreau is the exception to the rule.

Between elbowing the glass and freaking out on the bench during his team’s current losing streak, it’s no wonder the Capitals have little to no composure when they are forced to play from behind. In the event of a fire or an emergency, Boudreau is the last guy I would want being in charge of the safety of people’s lives. (That and the fact in one of his Real World-like confessions, he had either ketchup or barbeque sauce all over his face). He appears to be the complete opposite of Bylsma, who probably checks himself in the mirror a dozen times before being on camera, and I’m not sure how many NHL players can take their coach seriously when he shows up to practice in all red Capitals warmup gear with his stomach hanging over his pants like he is going to be Santa Claus at the Penguins’ team Christmas party.

Penguins Not Named Sidney Crosby vs. Capitals Not Named Alexander Ovechkin
It might have something to do with the extreme opposites of where the teams are right now, but the Penguins are a more likable team than the Capitals after one episode.

(On an unrelated side note: I went on a tour of the Verizon Center in D.C. in the summer of 1998 (it was the MCI Center then), the week after the Capitals were swept by the Red Wings in the finals. The building was a year old at that time and the locker rooms were incredible in the state-of-the-art facility. But after seeing what a locker room that was built 13 years ago looks like compared to the Penguins’ new locker room and arena, well there isn’t much of a comparison. The Verizon Center already looks old.)

I guess it’s interesting to see the life changes that a player experiences like Scott Hannan trying to rent a new house after being traded in the final year of his contract, or watching Pascal Dupuis say goodbye to his family before a road trip, but that’s not what people want to see.

Seven and eight years ago, ESPN had a similar show called The Season and one year they followed the Red Wings (when everyone was introduced to a call-up by the name of Sean Avery) and the next year they followed the Avalanche. In the Avalanche season, there is a scene on the plane where Peter Forsberg and some other guys are playing Tiger Woods on their computers against each other, and at the time I thought it was unreal. Then you see the Penguins in 2010 playing what looked to be Call of Duty on PSP and it’s just that much cooler. Sure there are the outcasts like Harvard grad Craig Adams reading a book on the plane while everyone is playing video games or cards, but aside from that, who wouldn’t want to be on the Penguins? Then again, that’s likely the difference between a team that’s winning and a team that’s losing.

The most intriguing Penguin was without a double Max Talbot who showed the stereotypical hockey player combination of being, odd, weird and creepy, and making sure to keep all these qualities balanced. Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury had their moments as well, but in the few minutes that Talbot had the camera on him, he stole the show.

From the Capitals we saw a lot of depression as a result of losing. Mike Green was more upset that the team was in a funk than the fact that he had a sprained MCL and still wanted to play.

The Capitals lost again on Wednesday night in overtime to the Ducks and their losing streak is at seven, but hopefully their weekend road trip to Boston and New Jersey will give them a personality for next week.