The previous time the Penguins were this deep into the playoffs, it was 2009, and Dan Bylsma was a rookie NHL head coach still getting to know his players.
It's not as if he was calling them Stanley Crosby or Chris Adams -- it was a comfortable, if frantic, first few months on the job -- but his relationship with his players was somewhat limited to hockey because of the team's situation. Bylsma took over a team in February that was in danger of missing the playoffs and led it on an 18-3-4 tear over the final 25 games.
The Penguins that year beat Philadelphia, then Washington, swept Carolina in the Eastern Conference final and beat Detroit in seven games to win the Stanley Cup.
Now, going into Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final Saturday against Boston, Bylsma has grown as a coach, and so has his relationship with his players -- even as he tries to keep at least a sliver of professional distance.
"Sometimes, as a head coach you try to temper those [relationships], but I've talked with players about whether they should get married or not, and have kids, and when to have kids," Bylsma said Wednesday after practice at Consol Energy Center.
"And you've dealt with some good times and bad times, both personally and professionally.
"I think there's a depth to the relationship that's way beyond what it was originally -- even though originally there was still communication as a strong point."
Familiarity has come with time, and Bylsma said that is exaggerated given how much time he spends around his team -- including a few players who were in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton when he coached that American Hockey League affiliate six, seven years ago.
"It's a long time in hockey," Bylsma said. "I equate to dog years."
"I think we have a better idea for the way each other is," said Sidney Crosby a 21-year-old team captain in 2009.
"At that point, it was full-gear, we-had-to-make-the-playoffs. There weren't really a ton of discussions. He was really busy trying to coach. It was pretty quick."
Bylsma was 38 during the 2009 Cup run, full of energy and the type of enthusiasm that induced him to often sprint down the runway and jump onto the ice for practice. At 42, Bylsma projects the same persona to the players.
"His personality has stayed the same," forward Craig Adams said. "You know what you're going to get from Dan every day, which is good. He's very consistent. I think guys appreciate that.
"I think you can tell that he still enjoys coming to the rink and being here, being around the game, being on the ice, talking about hockey, all those things. That passion is still there, for sure."
In a subtle but designed way, however, Bylsma has scaled back that outward passion.
"Maybe some of my growth has been to find areas where keeping that in check is better -- particularly with this hockey team," he said. "I've been more stoic this year, but there's not less enthusiasm."
Bylsma declined to spell out why he felt compelled with this season's team to be more restrained, but he offered a clue when he noted that the Penguins' success during his tenure has come more in the regular season than in the playoffs, at least since the Cup run.
The Penguins made it to Game 7 of the second round before losing to Montreal in 2010.
The next season, they lost in seven games to Tampa Bay in the first round, but played without Crosby and fellow explosive center Evgeni Malkin, who were hurt.
The first-round exit last season against underdog Philadelphia stung in so many ways. It came against the Penguins' rival and was based on lapses in discipline, defense and special teams.
This year, perhaps even more than last year, the Penguins are a strong favorite to win the Cup. Perhaps it's wiser for the coach to remain a little more measured.
Bylsma has not had the urge to overhaul the way he coaches or what he teaches.
"He's still brings the same attitude to the rink, the same preparation," Adams said.
"Our systems have evolved over the years. I'd say it's the same basic philosophy, but we've made adjustments along the way."
Bylsma said in terms of preparation, this season, shortened to 48 games by a lockout, reminded him of the 25-game chunk of season left when he took over as Penguins coach Feb. 15, 2009.
The results certainly were comparable -- the Penguins went 36-12 to earn the top seed in the East.
Bylsma can feel himself on the same course as in 2009 with its blazing stretch run and gallop through the postseason.
"I felt at the time that really the main focus of the team was: We've got to keep getting better," he said. "And we did that, we felt, even as we moved from Philly to Washington to Carolina and into the final. We did that as a group.
"Just because I'm 4 1/2 years further down the road, I don't think I've changed that. After '09, we had success, and I still tried to get better from that experience.
"I know in the last 4 1/2 years I've continually tried to get better and grow."
For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1721 or Twitter @pgshelly. First Published May 30, 2013 4:00 AM