A surreal ride for Penguins' Bylsma

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RALEIGH, N.C. -- In 2003, Dan Bylsma reached the Stanley Cup final as a winger with Anaheim. Last year, he was an assistant with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton when that club advanced to the American Hockey League's Calder Cup final.

Tomorrow night, Bylsma has a chance to get back to a winner-take-all series. He will mark his 100th day as Penguins coach with a berth in the Stanley Cup final if his team beats Carolina at RBC Center for a sweep in the Eastern Conference final.

Not bad for a 38-year-old who had never been a head coach before this season, who was promoted from Wilkes-Barre Feb. 15 when Michel Therrien was fired, and who, at times, has had to stop his head from spinning.

Things have happened so fast and furious that Bylsma is still identified as interim coach on the Penguins Web site even though that tag was removed by general manager Ray Shero between the first and second rounds of the playoffs almost a month ago.

So fast that when he is not absorbed in matters such as whether to dress six or seven defensemen, or when to double-shift Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or Jordan Staal with the fourth line, he takes a moment to digest the past few months.

Bylsma is philosophical enough to analyze the fact that he makes such reflections.

"I think it's inevitable," he said yesterday. "I'm not a person who thinks it's best to ignore all the thoughts that go through your head. Everyone has them.

"You try to deal with them all. You try to deal with the ones that don't do you any good and try to focus on the right things and the task at hand."

When he does allow his mind to drift to his first 100 days as the Penguins coach, he gets a little lost in disbelief.

"This whole three months-plus, many, many times, in moments of walking to the rink from the hotel or having a dinner away from being the coach, it's almost a shake-your-head situation. This is surreal. It's an out-of-body thing," Bylsma said.

"You can't quite put your hands on how things have progressed, seemingly quickly at times."

That pace applies to the Penguins, who went from being out of the playoff picture to the brink of the final since Bylsma took over. It also could describe Bylsma's ascension and success.

He is cognizant of the surprising nature of his career's sharp upward turn.

"I think everyone sees themselves at a certain age, and it's rarely the age we're at. You think, 'I'm 38,' but you see yourself as younger," he said. "To find myself in this situation is ... you pinch yourself, slap yourself, take a cold shower and you remember what you have to focus on."

For Bylsma, that's the Penguins.

From that February start, he was worried about being behind -- not just two slots below the playoff cutoff in the East but also lagging behind other teams in a coach-player relationship.

"I think the thing that we were concerned about is it usually takes 20, 25 games to build a foundation for your team -- how we want to play, the nuances and building the habits that you need to have to try to have success, to execute to have success," he said.

"And we only had 25 games while most other teams had the majority of the season if not the whole season to build that foundation."

No problem. The Penguins went 18-3-4 in Bylsma's 25 regular-season games to earn the fourth seed in the conference.

They are 11-5 in the playoffs with series victories against rival Philadelphia in the first round and Washington in the second round.

Bylsma said there have been some "emotionally tough" games, citing Game 6 in each of the first two rounds. In Philadelphia, the Penguins spotted the Flyers a 3-0 lead before coming back to win, 5-3, and clinch the series, and at home against Washington, the Penguins lost, 5-4, in overtime, forcing them to win Game 7 on the road.

"There's lots of ups and downs in that ride," Bylsma said. "You try the best you can to keep focusing on what we need to do."

Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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