By Stu Hackel
HBO's 24/7 miniseries on the Rangers and Flyers premiered Wednesday night and it is just as good as its ground-breaking predecessor on the Capitals and Penguins last season, which is to say, very good.
Once again, the warm but hard voice of Liev Schreiber guides viewers from scene to scene -- and, as with last year, each scene, each shot is masterful. Until something better comes along, which is hard to imagine, the group that films this series has set the standard for capturing the sights and sounds of NHL life from the inside.
It seems as if there is a major departure from last season's series, at least on the basis of the first episode. We didn't put a stopwatch to this, but it feels as if there is little less actual hockey and a bit more focus on what occurs outside of the boards. Last year, the first segment after the opening went right to the Penguins in their dressing room getting ready for a game, and then right into the action. This year, the first segment showed the various ways the Rangers commute to Madison Square Garden -- walking through the streets, traveling via subway or taxi, driving a car, and it goes right into establishing who the they are as a franchise.
Then we get John Tortorella's brief remarks, the Rangers take the ice (and, knowingly, HBO tells us they are wearing their white "sweaters" for this game against Toronto) for a bit of action. Then it's right off the ice again for Torts' first intermission rage about how poorly his team is playing. We got lots of both coaches last season and the blunt Tortorella will almost surely be a major figure this time.
What is shown from the ice is fantastic. As the end of that clip shows, the action remains perhaps the most revealing part of the series' initial hour. When Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto goes crashing into the endboards against Toronto, we not only see his writhings better than we did similar instances in the original telecast, we hear him moan and tell the training staff that he went shoulder first into the wall.
That's just the beginning, because HBO really takes us inside the Artem Anisimov "Rifleman" incident from the Rangers' next game, against Tampa Bay: the "shooting," the fight, Anisimov clueless about what he did wrong, the dialogue between players, coaches and officials, Anisimov sitting alone in the dressing room after getting a misconduct, his teammates smirking at him when they enter after the period ends, Tortorella scolding them for losing their discipline, Anisimov apologizing to the team, and his explanation the next day that a KHL player he saw used to do the rifle bit all the time without anyone complaining and he, Anisimov, always thought he'd like to do it in the NHL. It's great storytelling.
But no one tells a story better than Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who may be poised to be the breakout star of this year's 24/7.
On Twitter, a Toronto hockey blogger who goes by the name of Ace and tweets as Suicide Pass, heard Byrzgalov ruminate on the universe, tigers and rare Russian liqueurs and wrote, "Ilyz Bryzgalov is single-handedly confirming every wacky goalie/enigmatic Russian cliche in a single episode. i would watch him mow his lawn."
One of the gaps in last year's 24/7 was that the goalies, who can be the most fascinating people on any hockey team, were somewhat overlooked. Not this year and not this guy. (My SI.com colleague Michael Farber filed this funny, insightful look at Bryzgalov in October.) It's still an open question whether Bryzgalov has, as Schreiber says, fully adjusted to being the Flyers' No. 1 goalie. When we've seen him in action, he hasn't quite played like he's worth $10 million this season (he's got the stats -- 2.75 goals-against average, .901 save percentage -- to prove it). But we'll know better about him come May.
Right now, Bryzgalov is content to be winning games, and we're able to see what the Flyers' room is like when they post a W:
Winning is no easy thing for the Flyers, who are missing some key players such as Chris Pronger and Claude Giroux.
This year's show seems to be faster-paced as well. There are still good mini-portraits of various players and team personnel, but there is lots of traveling -- in the air and (as the Flyers go to Washington) on the rails. There are lots of hotels. There's meeting family who have traveled to see games. Ryan Callahan's grandmother, who tells him he didn't deserve a penalty he got in Buffalo, nearly steals the show in her cameo. There are also lots of restaurants.
The unseen rootlessness of the NHL life bursts through in this opening episode. And that's one reason why fans are likely to be rooted to 24/7 again this year.
By the way, last year's 24/7 is now available on DVD throughout our part of the universe.