Thursday, December 16, 2010

24/7 -- Part I: Your Short Guide to the Cast of Characters

For those of you who didn’t see the the first installment of 24/7, yer ol’ Uncle Peerless provides a summary of the cast…

Liev Schreiber: “The Narrator,” sounds like he’s reading Gray’s Anatomy as if it was a bedtime story.

Bruce Boudreau: “The F’n Coach.” we get the feeling he watched the Adult Channel version of Sesame Street and learned a new word with today’s letter, the letter “F.” And he’s using it in every f’n sentence any number of f’n times.

Dan Bylsma: “The Other Coach,” looks like my accountant (only with spiffier glasses). Seems to have an uncomfortable love affair with a scar on his upper lip. We don’t think that lip would ever have wing sauce on it (unlike the “F’n Coach”).

Sidney Crosby: “The Human Cliché,” not sure which one he’s racking up more, points in games or tired phrases in interviews. On the latter, he is already “Gretzkyesque.” He also sports a creepy moustache. And what, did he get those lips inflated for this series?

Alex Ovechkin: “The Buddy,” makes friend in odd ways, calling a guy “buddy” who just planted him to the ice. Wears that same weird hat Sergei Fedorov used to wear that looks like a cross between “Where’s Waldo” and “The Cap in the Hat.” Supposed to be the best player in the world, but that was before he started shaving again.

Max Talbot: “Fashion Plate,” wears sweaters not even Bill Cosby would have worn on his old TV show. He’s the guy HBO intends to show as a “good guy” you find all over hockey. Wholesome, friendly, and a pain in the ass to play against. Lives in what looks like a warehouse. Serve as foil to Crosby…”Sid’s definitely the worst.” Well, at video games, at least.

Pascal Dupuis: “Mr. Thankful to Have a Job on Sid’s Line.” The family man – four kids, two dogs, a platypus, and Marc-Andre Fleury (ok, we made up the last two). Quick to correct himself when calling Crosby slow…”he’s a special player; he does everything the right way.” We wonder what Dupuis is saying about him in French.

Nicklas Backstrom” “Mr. I’m From Sweden…No, Really… Sweden.” Never saw anyone from that part of the world who looked so cold when he’s standing outdoors in the winter time. Secretly wishes he was playing for the Panthers so he wouldn’t ever have to see ice unless it was at the rink. Looks good in official Winter Classic toque.

Ray Shero: “Mr Excitement,” is a walking, talking sleeping pill. His conversation with Dan Bylsma about bringing up Dustin Jeffrey was like reading the warning label on prolaximaxicontin.

Ted Leonsis: “Father of the Bride of Frankenstein.” What’s with the white trace through his hair? We noted he actually used the term “failure” with respect to last season. And is his office really that dark? It was like watching the Robert Prosky character in “The Natural”…turn out that infernal light!

George McPhee: “Mr. Warmth” gets only a few moments, but one can rest assured that the stick of his life remains firmly planted deeply in his posterior.

Dean Evason: “Mr. Paper or Plastic.” By the end of the hour, one had the feeling he goes to the Safeway just to hear the cashier ask “paper or plastic,” and he responds, “I don’t care, just GRAB A SACK!”

24/"F'n": Penguins/Capitals -- Part I

Hockey is not a sport for the faint of heart. Who knew listening to it would not be, either? That athletes and coaches swear in the friendly confines of their locker rooms or practice arenas is not exactly news. But the takeaway from last evening’s first installment of “HBO: 24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic” is that hockey, in particular its coaches, have taken “Art of the ‘F Bomb’” to unheard of heights.

We aren’t exactly prudes when it comes to creative uses of the “f-word,” so we were not offended by what was (by one count) 68 f-bombs in the hour. That qualifies as saturation bombing. Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau, who otherwise has the look of one of Santa’s elves on steroids, with his rosy cheeks, eyes a-sparkle, and quick smile, showed the dark side by unleashing a fusillade of f-bombs that seemed to become more intense as the hour progressed (and the chronicles of the Caps recent woes mounted).

Like we said, we weren’t offended; we were rather amused, as in “I would never have thought you could fit ‘f’in’ between those two words and make it work.” It is said that (cover your children’s eyes) “fuck” is the perfect word in the English language, a word that can be used as a noun, a verb (active or passive), an adjective, and adverb, an exclamation. It can be a term of endearment, a term of derision, an expression of frustration, a cry of anger. Bruce Boudreau seems to have mastered the word in all of its forms and all of its applications.

Not that Pittsburgh’s Dan Bylsma was less adept; he was merely more judicious in his use of the term. Whereas Boudreau’s use of the term had the impression of a buffet after a drunken crowd of frat boys were done with it, the remains splattered all over the room, Bylsma used the word as if he was sampling the tasting menu at a five-star restaurant… a little bit here, a dollop of it there.

But there was so much more to the first hour of the four-part series…

-- The first thing you notice is the first thing you notice – the sparse baritone of Liev Schreiber providing the narrative theme. Schreiber is synonymous with HBO sports documentaries, every bit as much distinctive in his style as the late John Facenda was as the voice of NFL films in the 1960’s and 1970’s. But where Facenda was “The Voice of God” describing “the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field,” Schreiber is more “like your grandfather telling you stories.” He never overwhelms the visual narrative or intrudes on the principals in the piece, and his narration struck a fine balance between having something for the die-hard fan and being instructive for those not familiar with the sport.

-- There were a number of interviews with players and executives any fan would recognize. There wasn’t much there that was especially illuminating, although we could see where the curious viewer would get a glimpse into what generally goes into the preparation, the frustration, and the elation that a professional athlete or coach experiences in small slice of a season being portrayed. We were struck more by the none-too-subtle production value of capturing the subject in close-up with harsh underlighting that, we suppose, was meant to give the impression of lights reflecting off an ice surface. It lent a somewhat creepy halo effect in illuminating the subject’s eyes.

-- HBO ended up having the good fortune of a contrast narrative to open their series. The Caps and the Penguins are two of the elite teams in the NHL, but frankly, a narrative of two great teams on a collision path to January 1st seems to us rather boring and trite. At the moment, though, the Caps are experiencing a stretch of misfortune that is unprecedented in the Boudreau era – a losing streak that would reach six games during this installment of the series. And this was happening while the Penguins were in the midst of a winning streak that would reach 12 games. The contrast was sharp and compelling – the Penguins, a team with three Stanley Cups (the last won only two years ago) and perhaps the most recognizable name in the sport going on the most prolific stretch of games of his career, on top of the world by steamrolling opponents night after night. Meanwhile, the Caps, a team of perennial playoff disappointment that had not been in a Stanley Cup final in 12 years, were mired in a losing streak, perhaps the best player in the world fighting the most frustrating drought of his career. You can’t make up stuff like this.

-- The fan who has never paid much attention to the sport, but has heard stories of the toughness of hockey players, got a stark example of it right away. In the early part of the segment the cameras captured Pittsburgh’s Deryk Engellland scrapping with Toronto’s Colton Orr. At the end of their fight, Engelland proceeds directly to the team doctor, who stitches up Engelland’s eye brow for all the viewers to see. While the doctor is applying the stitches, he inquires about Engelland’s hands, the instruments players such as Engelland use at least as often as their sticks in the course of a game. Three stitches, and he’s on his way back to the locker room, where he is singled out for praise by coach Dan Bylsma. Engelland’s role – and his example is duplicated among many locker rooms, we daresay – does not go unappreciated by his coaches or teammates.  For you fans new to the sport, that's hockey.

-- Although the theme in the run up to this series and the game itself is the competition between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, the first installment of 24/7 was disappointing in peeling back any layers from either player or from their unique relationship from those hockey fans already have seen. Crosby was, as any hockey fan would recognize, a rolodex of clichés. Ovechkin was, as he seems to have become more recently, more guarded and more measured in his quotes, not the effervescent 20-year old who took the league by storm in 2006.

-- The more interesting contrast in Part I was that between the coaches. Each was a reflection of their teams’ relative states, and the portrayal of each added texture to what fans might already thought they had known about each. On the one hand was Dan Bylsma, who gives the impression of being something of a technocrat, sitting quietly in his office tapping away on his computer calling up clips of players in recent games. But Bylsma also was encouraging to his players in a way that might not seem in tune with the character fans might see behind a Penguin bench. His aim was more a “maintenance” role – keeping the players focused and keeping the momentum that comes with a long winning streak. We did not see much in the way of “teaching.” That was more what Boudreau was providing. Boudreau gives the impression of being a more vocal, a more emotional coach. Let’s face it, there are some who see Boudreau as a lovable everyguy who might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer. But listening to him miced up in practice, and viewers had a chance to see “Professor Boudreau,” directing players here and there on the ice, trying to draw on a store of hockey knowledge decades in the making to find that spark to end a losing streak. One got to see two very different styles, not in terms of the fleeting glimpses we get watching them on the bench or reading their quotes after a game, but getting a sense of context and depth. The treatment of Bylsma and Boudreau, two very fine (but very different) coaches managing two very different situations, was the most effective and compelling story of Part I.

-- The “human interest” relief midway through Part I was interesting as far as it went – a skate on the Mall, househunting with new acquisition Scott Hannan for the Caps, a holiday party at Consol Energy Arena with the Penguins though the eyes of Max Talbot, but it wasn’t nearly as interesting as what followed – the Caps struggling with a mounting losing streak (and an increasingly frustrated Bruce Boudreau trying to rid the players of their “woe is me” attitude), Alex Ovechkin trying to spark his team with a fight against the Rangers' Brandon Dubinsky and both players congratulating one another upon its conclusion ("good job, buddy"..."yeah, good job, buddy") and the Penguins preparing for a trip to Buffalo to extend their winning streak. It was the Penguin road trip that was the more fascinating segment. In it, you could see that these guys are, for the most part, still kids – playing video games on the plane (where their competitive and smack talk ways carry over from the ice) and pulling pranks on the young guys.

-- There were glimpses of what might come in later segments. You get the impression that there is more to Sidney Crosby than what he offers for public consumption. More than just a cliché machine who gives the stock answer to questions he has heard a thousand times. He appreciated the prank on Mark Letestu and Ben Lovejoy as much as anyone, and we suspect he’s not above pulling such pranks himself, captaincy or not. On the other hand, there is Alex Ovechkin, the quick wit and king of the one liner, remarking to a referee after teammate Alexander Semin was ejected for cross-checking Colorado defenseman John-Michael Liles and opening a gash on his neck, “he probably have sensitive skin, no?” It takes a quick mind to come up with that line in the context of the moment. Ovechkin has opened the window to this side of his personality before, mostly in commercials such as his banter with Ted Leonsis over a vending machine that wouldn’t give up a bag of potato chips or his disembodied head selling hockey equipment. But we might get a closer look at this part of the player as the series goes on.

Part I set the stage, giving the viewer an image of where these teams come from in terms of their history and where they stand as they skate toward their meeting on January 1st. HBO does this sort of documentary better than anyone. From the impressive video to the telling of a narrative, they are the gold standard. We can’t wait to see what lies ahead in Part II.

As long as someone tells Coach Boudreau to wipe the sauce off his chin.

A ONE-point night -- Game 33: Ducks 2 - Caps 1 (OT)

Baby steps.

When a team has been kicked about over six games, having been plastered 7-0 in the last game it played, it would be a stretch – even for the 1977-78 Canadiens – to make everything right in one fell swoop.

And so it was tonight as the Caps did just about everything you could ask of a team reeling with six straight losses. Everything but find a way for pucks to hit iron and go in instead of out. After ringing iron four times in their 7-0 loss to the Rangers last Sunday, the Caps hit posts two more times tonight – once on a breakaway by Alex Ovechkin – which gave the Anaheim Ducks just enough room to hang close and eventually win a 2-1 overtime decision to give the Caps their seventh straight loss.

The Caps got an ugly goal to start things off in the first period, a play that started with Nicklas Backstrom taking the puck wide and behind the Ducks’ net. Coming out the other side, he tried to slide the puck to John Carlson pinching on the right side. The puck came loose and squirted to the slot where Brooks Laich swept a shot over goalie Jonas Hiller’s glove and into the back of the net.

Anaheim got it back on power play goal, a bit of a gift for Joffrey Lupul (who isn’t exactly unfamiliar with pucks landing on his stick in the eastern end of the Verizon Center rink, having taken advantage of a gift in overtime of Game 7 in the 2008 first round playoff series against the Flyers). Lupul was standing on the doorstep when the puck found its way onto his stick, and he had only to bunt the biscuit through goalie Semyon Varlamov’s legs as Varlamov was trying to position himself to make a save.

Anaheim would win the game on the kind of goal that one wishes the Caps would find a way to score more often. At 4-on-4 in the extra session the Ducks were having success keeping the puck in the Caps’ end. Moving the puck around the perimeter, the biscuit found its way onto the stick of Ryan Getzlaf in the left wing corner. And here was a classic veteran-versus-prospect play. John Carlson tried to mark Getzlaf, but the Duck forward shook himself loose circling through the left wing circle. It was just enough room for Getzlaf to unleash a wrist shot through a screen and over the right arm of Varlamov for the win.

And so six became seven.

Other stuff…

-- Alex Ovechkin can’t buy a goal. He had the best looks he’s had in quite a while, but either hit iron (a breakaway) or caught just enough of Jonas Hiller’s equipment to be denied the flashing red light.

-- Lost in all this losing at the moment is a sliver of hope; the Caps have allowed three or fewer goals in five of the seven losses. Four of the losses have been by one goal. Only the loss to the Rangers was a blowout. If this is the price the Caps have to play to learn how to play defense, it will have been worth it four months from now.

-- Brooks Laich had his best game in perhaps weeks. Seven shots on goal, with a goal to go with them, and six faceoff wins in six tries. But it was a shot that didn’t go in that might have been the turning point. Having a point blank opportunity from the right wing circle, Laich squeezed a shot through Hiller’s pads, the puck trickling to the goal line. Just as it was getting to the goal line Getzlaf darted behind Hiller and swept the puck out of the crease to prevent the Caps from taking a 2-0 lead.

-- The fourth line of Matt Hendricks, Jay Beagle, and Andrew Gordon skated fewer combined minutes (17:37) than ten of the other 15 individual Capitals. They had a combined two shot attempts (both by Hendricks).

-- Odd that on a night when the Caps had 25 hits among 12 players that Alex Ovechkin would be one of the six skaters without one.

-- The third period of this game was painful to watch. There was no flow and, at least from the Caps, a lack of energy. Anaheim was not playing especially suffocating defense; it was a case of the Caps just looking slow.

-- The Caps did something tonight fans in Verizon Center might not have seen ever in Bruce Boudreau’s tenure as head coach – line matching. The David Steckel-Matt Bradley-Brooks Laich line was matched to the Getzlaf-Perry-Ryan line all night. It worked rather well. That line had only 13 shot attempts for the game, and the goal Getzlaf scored for the win was done so with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin at forward.

-- I realize folks love Mathieu Perreault, but tonight really wasn’t a very good game for 85. Skittering across the ice like a waterbug across a pond isn’t the same as being effective. He was all over the place to little discernable purpose. And losing nine of ten draws was not the sort of result you want from a center (the rest of the team was 28-14 in the circle).

-- Mike Green had one shot on goal. He also had five blocked shots. Finding a way to contribute in more ways that just a shot from the edge of the right wing circle is part of the continuing evolution of a defenseman. Not bad considering he might be playing on a gimpy leg.

-- Eric Fehr might be headed to the dog house again. One shot attempt, a penalty (although it struck us as cheesy), and nothing else on the score sheet in 12:52 of ice time.

In the end, it was a case of the Caps doing a lot of good things. If the hockey gods were just a little kinder, it could have been a 3-0 game at the first intermission. But they weren’t. One gets the feeling – or at least harbors the hope – that all the iron the Caps are hitting, all the shots that are going just wide, all the pucks that lack enough oomph to crawl across a goal line are being banked to be cashed in later. Say, in the spring. We feel a lot better about this loss than any on this streak. It is coming to an end.