Collier: Bylsma tough in clutch

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That game plan Penguins coach Dan Bylsma produced for Game 4 in Ottawa the other night was among his very best -- Plan 5-6-7 you can call it -- the one where you get five of your top six forwards to score seven goals.

Ingenious.

You wonder how the same hockey mind, at the end of Game 3, could instruct five Penguins to spend a last-minute power play spectating the puck instead of watching the people in red sweaters who might put it in the net, ruin a Tomas Vokoun shutout, and, quite possibly, win in overtime.

Dumbfounding.

Satirically speaking then, as ever, Bylsma has been neither dumbfounded nor ingenious in these NHL playoffs, he has merely been the illogical scapegoat for the few occasions on which his stable of superstars have strayed from excellence.

Neither you nor I have any idea whether Bylsma's team can find a place in the Eastern Conference final with a victory in Game 5 tonight, not really, but we both know who will be responsible if they don't.

The Dan Man.

Never mind this remains likely to be the seventh successful playoff series that has found Bylsma behind the Penguins bench against only three that were not. He doesn't do that by ordering seven goals to chase Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson for the second time in this series, nor does he fail now and again because he forgets to tell Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang to pay attention to Daniel Alfredsson should the Senators captain approach the goal cage in the final 30 seconds.

What the coach has been far more responsible for this postseason is the way the Penguins have dealt with some difficult mental challenges that were all but inevitable. Experienced and talented and deep as they are, the Penguins shouldn't be counted upon for self-correction. Bylsma's had to push some buttons.

"In the [New York] Islanders series I think we were, with a different opponent, in a different mindset," Bylsma was saying Thursday afternoon. "There was a different mind frame in parts of that series than in this round, and I think in the two circumstances we reacted differently."

The truth is that the Penguins weren't all that far from coming apart after Game 4 on Long Island the night of May 7. They had just dropped a 6-4 decision that featured the spectacular breakdown of their No. 1 goaltender, been outplayed in three consecutive games and detected the unmistakable postseason odor of smoke in the cockpit.

Edgy?

When the locker-room door opened, the media crush nearly fell on Sidney Crosby, occupying the locker nearest the exit. Thus, the exit was blocked for players and equipment handlers trying to get into the hallway. Tempers were short. Anger was voiced. We were all fortunate no one took a major penalty.

Two nights later at Consol Energy Center, three Bylsma lineup changes and some adjusted confidences were some part of a ruthlessly efficient 4-0 victory.

"As a coaching staff, we were cognizant of where we were when things weren't going too well," was about all Bylsma would say about that. "We reset for this series, got the first two games of this series, then we go in [to Ottawa] and play our best road game of the playoffs in Game 3, but it unfolds that the last 30 seconds they end up getting a big short-handed goal and winning in double overtime.

"Going into Game 4 we really had to reset and refocus after the long game, and I liked the response of our team. You saw where they scored the short-handed goal, and it was the first time we've been down in regulation in a game [in this series]. Their building was as loud as it has been, but I liked the way we kept playing, kept our focus, kept getting a lot of shots. You saw that response coming out [for] the second period."

Bylsma put Jussi Jokinen and Beau Bennett back in the lineup for Game 4, partly as the result of the short search for fresh legs after an extra long Game 3, but just as surely owing to his sense of the proper time to do those things. Jokinen wound up on the scoresheet at the far end of a cadenza in which the Penguins pumped in four goals in the third period's first 10 minutes to go ahead 7-2. Full control of the series returned to where most anyone would have looked for it, again, just as it appeared control might well leak away.

Am I telling you Bylsma had something to do with that, both times? Yes, I am.

The Penguins can win nine more times between tonight and the Fourth of July, but Bylsma's chances of being seen as something other than the guy holding up the parade permit aren't likely to improve.

That's a shame is what that is.

mobilehome - penguins - genecollier

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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