By Ryan Stieg, AllPuck.com
For the first time in my life I upgraded my satellite TV service. I did this because I wanted to watch one show, for one month.
Last year there was no “24/7 Red Wings/Maple Leafs: Road to the NHL Winter Classic” because of the lockout. The series featuring the Detroit Red Wings and Maple Leafs (and the game, the Winter Classic) got pushed back to this season.
Based on what I’ve seen so far, this was a wise investment — and the most interesting pairing of the three-year-old series.
The Penguins and Capitals matchup was intriguing because of the star power of Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. The Flyers and Rangers made fans tune in to watch a bitter rivalry unfold (as well as the antics of John Tortorella). This year, the series features two Original Six teams that are trying to battle adversity and relive their glory days. It’s made for a great storyline so far.
Episode 1 starts by comparing the two cities and fan bases. Detroit, a bankrupt city that’s becoming a running joke in this country, boasting a team with a long history of success and devoted fans. In contrast is Toronto, the thriving Canadian metropolis and the center of the NHL universe, now more famous for its crack-smoking lunatic of a mayor. The Maple Leafs also have a strong fan base, one that’s seen more tragedy than happiness. HBO asks the Maple Leaf players about last season’s Game 7 loss to Boston, a gut-wrenching contest in which the Leafs blew a 4-1 lead in the third period and proceeded to lose in overtime. The players seem like they’ve put the loss behind them, but you can tell it’s still on their minds. They are playing with a purpose: to make up for that collapse.
As the action goes, the Wings host their 118th consecutive sellout at Joe Louis Arena but fall to Florida in a game where they lacked energy. Detroit gets a chance to recover and beat the Panthers on the road but fall again, this time in a shootout. The Wings have struggled in the net. Jimmy Howard and Jonas Gustavsson have been inconsistent; Howard also suffers a knee injury in practice that makes you think the Olympic hopeful is made of glass. On the plus side, Pavel Datsyuk returns to the lineup to provide an offensive boost, but the Red Wings are still missing Captain Henrik Zetterberg.
The Leafs are also struggling. In a rematch with the Bruins, the Leafs put forth another Game 7 performance and give up three goals in the second period on the way to a 5-2 loss. Worse yet, a questionable hit by captain Dion Phaneuf results in a two-game suspension for the defenseman. Later, Toronto plays the Kings and loses 3-1, but head coach Randy Carlyle sees positives and thinks the team can build on its performance.
The usual spate of light-hearted moments includes a Detroit ritual in which one player recites the night’s starting lineup while making fun of said players. Longtime Ottawa Senator Daniel Alfredsson teaches his kids the finer points of hockey at Joe Louis Arena. Toronto’s AHL affiliate, the Marlies, host a Christmas party for Leafs players and families where the bachelor members of the squad play a rather spirited game of bubble hockey. Carlyle also shows us that for all his tactical skills behind a bench, he has difficulties making breakfast – his toast gets stuck in the toaster and he’s flummoxed by the Canadian food products.
Episode 2 opens with a familiar theme. Both teams lose again. After Howard suffers a knee injury in Tampa, the Wings lose four of five games, starting with a 2-1 shootout loss to the Lightning. Detroit later finds out that its goalie has a Grade 1 MCL sprain that will keep him out 2-4 weeks. In St. Louis, the Leafs play poorly in a blowout loss to the Blues (their third straight defeat) and are dealt another two-game suspension, to David Clarkson for a high hit. The cameras catch the coach telling two of his players, Mark Fraser and Paul Ranger, that they will not be suiting up for the next game. This comes after a practice held up by striking workers outside the Air Canada Centre.
In their next contest, the Wings must play before an empty arena due to a blizzard. Those who show up didn’t see anything worth watching. Detroit is overwhelmed by Crosby and Malkin, falling to the Penguins 4-1. Viewers are treated to a relatable moment when Michigan native Justin Abdelkader and Toronto native Brendan Smith carpool to Joe Louis before the game and watch terrible drivers slide all over the road.
In Toronto, it’s Hockey Night in Canada as the defending champion Blackhawks come to town and Phaneuf returns to the lineup. After a lackluster performance against the Blues, the Leafs come out blazing, scoring four goals in the second period to crush Chicago 7-3. To celebrate, Toronto blasts Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop.” Carlyle shakes his head at the musical selection.
Detroit gets another chance at the Lightning, but the Wings can’t produce offensively and get shut out by Tampa Bay. After the game, longtime GM Ken Holland expresses his frustration with the team’s lack of offense. While the Wings are miserable, the Leafs are in a good mood when they land in Pittsburgh. Goalies James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier discuss what it’s like splitting ice time and they say it doesn’t bother them. Some players then head to a restaurant where they rack up a $700 bill. Like the Rangers last season, they engage in the ritual credit card roulette to settle the tab. Whereas the wealthy New York netminder Henrik Lundvquist was the “unlucky” one whose card was drawn two years ago, Toronto call-up Jerry D’Amigo, one of the lowest paid members of the squad, has to pay the bill in Pittsburgh. The next night, the Leafs give up an early goal to the Penguins and end up chirping with them the entire game. Phaneuf and Crosby start arguing during a huddle with the refs1, and the refs get increasingly upset with the two teams’ inability to control their emotions. Sid the Kid then connects on a shot to give the Pens the lead; an empty-netter seals a 3-1 Leafs loss.
While the Leafs come back down to earth, the Wings support their city by donating a Zamboni to a park. Head coach Mike Babcock gives a speech and Niklas Kronwall skates with the kids. Detroit also gets some positive news when Zetterberg skates for the first time in a while. Babcock tries to make light of all the injuries that are hitting his team by saying that his 16-year-old daughter is ready to go if needed.
The episode ends with both teams playing on the same night. The Wings take on the Ducks, while the Leafs take on the Panthers. Neither team plays well as Toronto gets shut out 3-0 and Detroit gives up four goals in the first period en route to a 5-2 loss. Both coaches also kick the cameras out of the locker room to rip their teams between periods. Carlyle is so fed up that he challenges his squad to keep working after the game and they head to the weight room, determined to get back on track.
It’s been a fun look into the two locker rooms so far. A showman hasn’t arrived yet, like Ilya Bryzgalov for the Flyers, but the fact that both teams are struggling and fighting hard to turn their seasons around makes for a good storyline. I recommend tuning in Saturday night if you haven’t already done so.
1. During this exchange I begin to understand why some dislike Crosby. He comes across as a whiner and a diva.