Apart from Randy Carlyle's bout with a toaster, some of the most memorable parts of HBO's "24/7" series centered around past Winter Classic matchups was the in-game footage. Novel camera angles, uncensored recordings of player and coach interactions, and a tidy voiceover narrative resulted in a cinematic feel that lent suspense to highlights of a game you'd seen just a few nights before. So it was a good decision by EPIX, in their attempt to produce a worthy heir to HBO's acclaimed show, to start the first episode of "Road to the Stadium Series" by throwing viewers smack dab into the middle of the Sharks and Kings' pre-All-Star Break contest following the minimum necessary exposition setting up the teams' rivalry intercut with shots of John Scott struggling to do push-ups.
Speaking of Murdersaurus, as useless as Scott is on the ice is as valuable as he is to this episode and, presumably, the rest of the series going forward. From Joe Pavelski joking there's "a lot that goes into" the enforcer's four minutes of ice time as he strains to complete one legitimate push-up to Scott asking James Sheppard how his All-Star Break trip to Vancouver went when Sheppard had actually gone to San Diego, Scott was easily the breakout star of this episode and came across as a fun dude to be around off the ice.
Anyway, back to the program's coverage of the last Sharks-Kings game, just prior to which we're treated to Darryl Sutter's intricate play diagramming:
That's what it takes to win two Stanley Cups, apparently.
The first main setpiece of the show's game coverage is a fight between Brenden Dillon and Kyle Clifford, used to demonstrate the rivalry between the teams. As a Sharks fan who still carries the emotional scars of last April, I'm thankful the episode didn't overemphasize the collapse, instead choosing to highlight the Kings' recent success, in-state bragging rights, Pacific Division jostling and the overall context of San Jose being knocked out of the playoffs each of the last two seasons by Los Angeles to drum up the rivalry. Of course, #ItWasThreeNothing will probably come back with a vengeance to add some narrative flair to the actual Levi's Stadium game.
Logan Couture drives wide on Alec Martinez and cuts to the net to open the scoring, which prompts a round of "Get on the fuckin' body!" from Sutter. His answer to seemingly every bad thing that happens to the Kings over the course of this episode is to be more physical, and he's hilariously vindicated when a Robyn Regehr check against the Blackhawks leads to a Tyler Toffoli goal later on in the show. Eventually, the Sharks' power play proves to be the difference, just as Jay Woodcroft is shown predicting prior to puck drop, and the Kings whine about it with Justin Williams accusing Couture of diving to draw a call on Drew Doughty.
The Sharks win, Todd McLellan is happy, and the teams go their separate ways for the All-Star Break. That is, except for the four people headed to Columbus for the festivities: Sutter, Doughty, Anze Kopitar and Brent Burns.
Burns is on the shortlist of most interesting Sharks, as is made clear when he's shown pulling out of the SAP Center parking lot in a large windowless black van, so it's little surprise the show uses his All-Star appearance as an opportunity to delve deeper into his love of reptiles and other animals (we learn that his snake collection now tops 300). There were some images of Burns and his family visiting the Columbus Zoo that made its way onto social media a few weeks ago but a herd of baby cheetahs hurdling over the Sharks' defenseman is new.
Honestly, the biggest star of the show's All-Star weekend coverage turns out to be Chris Sutter, Darryl's son who has Down syndrome. Chris shit-talking Duncan Keith and Patrick Kane in the Team Foligno locker room about how the Kings are going to go through them for another Stanley Cup this spring was awesome. I'm also glad the show didn't just use him as a prop like NBC's coverage of the All-Star Game itself tended to do, later featuring Chris in a touching moment when Maria Shriver asks him to be a Special Olympics torch-bearer.
Meanwhile, in Cabo San Lucas, Joe Thornton is the goddamn king of the sea:
From Thornton's thinly-veiled "fuck the All-Star Game, I'm going to Cabo" speech to Jumbo being enraptured by the sight of dolphins to his excitement over one of his buddies finally catching a fish (speaking of which, PETA probably won't be big on this episode), this was probably the best segment of the entire episode. Thornton interacting with his kids, and his wife talking about what a great dad he is, was heartwarming too. It's a shame he just isn't captain material.
Back on the mainland, we get a look at Joe Pavelski's backyard golf course and his drive to the Tank through Bay Area suburbs for the Sharks' first post-break game against Anaheim. More importantly, though, we finally get to hear from Patrick Marleau. The most disappointing part of this episode, apart from its lack of coverage of the Mike Richards waiver saga, was not enough Patty.
He kills it in his one scene, though. Awkward as ever, Marleau stumbles over his own words while talking about the importance of getting a win. It seems like he wants to say "heading into the second half of the season" but blanks on the latter part of that, pulling "heading into the, uh, 37 games left in the season" out of his ass instead.
It's okay, we still love you Patty.
Unfortunately we don't get to listen to a mic'd-up Ryan Getzlaf progressively losing his shit as the Ducks are blown out but there is an audible "HOLY FUCK!" as Getzlaf inadvertently (or so he claims) shoots a puck into Matt Nieto's face. Behind-the-scenes looks at the team medical staff treating in-game injuries was always a hallmark of "24/7", so it's nice to see "Road to the Stadium Series" follow in those footsteps as we're treated to a close-up of Nieto getting stitched up.
The episode concludes with a parallel look at the Sharks and Kings games from this past Saturday, as L.A. lost in Boston while the Sharks beat the Blackhawks at home, with the voiceover explaining that the teams are headed in opposite directions but ultimately to the same destination before concluding with a glimpse of Levi's Stadium. Given how uneven this season has been for the Sharks, it's somewhat amusing that they're portrayed throughout this episode as a dominant club but I suppose that's the good fortune of the show's game coverage beginning right after San Jose's embarrassing home loss to New Jersey and just prior to their three-game winning streak against the Kings, Ducks and Hawks.
HBO set the bar high with "24/7" and there was every reason to be skeptical that EPIX, a channel few have heard of and even fewer have access to through their cable packages, would be able to meet that standard. But, honestly, any drop-off in quality was imperceptible, at least as far as this first offering is concerned. Tonight's episode certainly wouldn't have felt out of place if inserted into HBO's series. Granted, the filmmakers had a pretty compelling slate of games for both sides along with the All-Star Game to work with and it'll be interesting to see how they deal with what looks like a pretty nondescript schedule for the Sharks and Kings over the next week, but so far so good.
FTF Three Stars
1st Star: John Scott
2nd Star: Chris Sutter
3rd Star: Scott Hannan's juggling skills