Penguins notebook: Richards, Bylsma go back as colleagues and friends

PENGUINS NOTEBOOK

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Heading into the 2006-07 season, coach Todd Richards cast a net for an assistant coach with the Penguins' American Hockey League affiliate, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

One candidate's phone interview stood out.

"The first thing I was struck by was ... he comes across as a very intelligent, smart guy -- his vocabulary and how he talks. He's articulate," Richards, now the coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, said of Dan Bylsma, the Penguins coach.

"But [he was] hockey smart, not just able to talk and use words. Good ideas. To me, right away, there was a clear difference -- a clear difference -- from the other guys that I interviewed. He was the guy."

Richards and Bylsma have coached with, for and against each other in several settings -- including the Sochi Olympics, where Richards was part of Bylsma's staff with Team USA.

Wednesday, though, was their first time opposing each other in the Stanley Cup playoffs, in Game 1 of the Penguins-Blue Jackets opening-round series at Consol Energy Center.

"Two of those years with Todd [at Wilkes-Barre], I learned an awful lot coaching under him and being part of his staff," Bylsma said.

"You're going to see more of him in me than me in him."

Like Richards, Bylsma remembers that first phone conversation.

"I was standing in the sun porch of my brother-in-law's house in Chicago, Ill., for the interview," Bylsma said. "I pace a lot when I talk on the phone, so I had to buy my brother-in law a new carpet for his outdoor living space. I remember the interview quite vividly."

Bylsma said he and Richards, who usually communicate by text, did not touch base before this series.

"We've been together at the Olympics, and now we're coaching against each other," Bylsma said. "We've played golf enough times together.

"There are a lot of different parts to our relationship.

"Right now, I guess the big question for me is, who's going to be the most unhappy when we go golfing the next time."

No way to explain it

The Penguins entered Game 1 with five players -- defensemen Olli Maatta and Robert Bortuzzo, forwards Brian Gibbons and Jayson Megna and goalie Jeff Zatkoff -- who never had dressed for a Stanley Cup playoff game.

Whether any of their teammates could prepare them for what it's like isn't clear.

"It's definitely different," right winger Lee Stempniak said.

"It's definitely a step up. The intensity is a lot higher. Every inch of ice is contested, and every play can make the difference in the series. You need to be mentally prepared for how important and how competitive it is.

"I wish I would have been told earlier that you have to remain calm. You can't get so wrapped up in it. You get out there and you want to run around, you want to do everything on your first shift. ... It's a fine line between being too amped up, running around like a chicken with your head cut off, and actually playing the game."

Left winger Tanner Glass echoed that sentiment and offered this simple advice to his younger teammates before the game:

"Go and have fun. You find out pretty quickly what it's all about."

An early riser

Penguins center Joe Vitale, who missed the final 12 games of the regular season because of an unspecified injury, didn't know before arriving at the arena whether he would be in the lineup, but that didn't stop him from catching some playoff fever.

"It's exciting. It's the best time of the year coming to the rink," he said.

"I got up before my alarm. You get the butterflies going again."

Teammate Sidney Crosby was amused to hear what Vitale said.

"I didn't wake up before my alarm, but I was excited," Crosby said. "This is why we play."

Healthier than usual

Vitale wasn't the only Penguins player who returned from injury and played in Game 1.

High-scoring center Evgeni Malkin, who missed the final 11 games of the regular season because of a foot injury, also played.

That left the Penguins with perhaps their shortest injury list since training camp.

Center Marcel Goc, who has a left foot or ankle injury, put on skates briefly Tuesday and skated Wednesday before the team held its game-day skate. Winger Chris Conner, who has been out this calendar year because of successive hand and foot injuries, was sent to Wilkes-Barre on a conditioning assignment.

The Penguins' healthy scratches were forwards Megna and Taylor Pyatt, and defensemen Bortuzzo and Deryk Engelland.


Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.

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