Penguins and the Playoff Chase: The Book on Bylsma

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The co-author of two books, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma would appear to be hard at work on the completion of an instructional trilogy.

With his father, Jay, Bylsma has written "So Your Son Wants to Play in the NHL" and its sequel, "So You Want to Play in the NHL," and though there is no working title for the subsequent text and "So Your Mother Wants to Play in the NHL" is probably out, there's very likely a prime market for "So Your Underachieving NHL Team Needs a Late-Season Slap in the Psyche."

Publishers haven't lined up yet, but who better to write that one?

Five-and-a-half weeks looks like all the dossier Bylsma needs. It has been only that long since Bylsma swapped nurturing the Baby Penguins for coaching the presumably adult version, which at the time had buried itself well short of expectations, not to mention the playoffs.

But with Bylsma behind the bench, the Penguins suddenly went a month between regulation losses, piled up 27 points in his first 16 games, and jet-packed into the middle of the postseason field.

Could someone at least feign surprise around here?

Not yesterday.

"This day and age, it's like the old Yogi-ism, 90 percent of the game is half mental, and a lot of that is true," said Penguins defenseman Mark Eaton after another of Bylsma's upbeat practices. "A month ago this was a pretty fragile hockey team with a timid attitude. Now it's like we feel there's nothing we can't do. We can get behind, come back and win, but it was a long time coming.

"I think everyone knew the team had this kind of potential. Going back to the beginning of the year, we knew this team was capable of playing this kind of hockey."

You'd hate to think that all this team was waiting for was for Michel Therrien to be shoved off the ice floe, in part because that would undervalue what Bylsma's done for this team. Only six first-time coaches in the entire history of the National Hockey League ever started their careers at a higher rate of success. Certainly Bylsma got a huge assist from general manager Ray Shero, perhaps the only man in the building with a hotter hand than he. It was Shero who brought Bill Guerin to town at the trade deadline, alone with Chris Kunitz and Craig Adams, amping the toughness and agitation quotients back to customary levels.

But it was Bylsma who had to walk into that room and read the faces. To see where this team was and take it to another place.

"At times before he got here," Sidney Crosby said yesterday, "we could all look around the room and see guys who could give more than they were giving. It wasn't easy for him. It's been a combination of things, but part of it was we had to face up to the fact that we weren't doing everything we could do."

Perhaps it seems almost unremarkable, what these Penguins have done in 51/2 weeks, because Bylsma has done it without any verbal slashing or roughing, at least not in public. This isn't anything like Mike Tomlin's new-sheriff-in-town transition, initially derided in a similarly veteran locker room and only slowly and even grudgingly assimilated. Moreover, Bylsma wouldn't even take credit for the sudden shift in Penguins tactics, claiming he was merely explaining Therrien systems in new terms.

"Everyone's buying in," said center Tyler Kennedy. "Everyone's being more accountable. Guys have just been more responsible."

In any event, there's no denying that Shero looks pretty smart as the Penguins prepare to see how they'll bounce back tonight against the Calgary Flames after a rare loss. Bylsma looks even smarter, a notion that the head coach rejected pretty flatly outside his office yesterday.

"I can say clearly that I'm not that smart," he said. "The players here have just bought into a different mindset and played a little different tempo. We have good players here who were willing to work at establishing our identity as a hockey team. It's usually something you develop in the first 25 to 30 games and then you hone for the next 20 or 30. Here we've done it all in 17.

"But the credit goes to the players. To be honest, I was not surprised at all that things went that way."

Eight games remain until a postseason that to some seemed impossible only a month ago (guilty), but Bylsma's team must still sense the desperation.

"We've got to come back hard tonight," said Guerin. "We don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves."

Maybe this team isn't one you'd necessarily write a book about just yet, but you've got to like the outline.

Gene Collier can be reached at .


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