High-pressure system in forecast for Bylsma, Penguins when playoffs begin


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I started a long conversation with Penguins coach Dan Bylsma late Tuesday night by congratulating him on getting to 200 wins faster than any NHL coach. I finished it by suggesting he likely will be fired if the team goes out in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the third consecutive spring. Bylsma never blinked. He's not oblivious to the pressure that goes with coaching the overwhelming favorite to win the Eastern Conference and advance to the Cup final. The Penguins added world-class talents and former NHL captains Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow, along with key contributors Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen, near the trade deadline to a stacked team that was picked before the season to win the Cup. They are 22-3 in their past 25 games, playing 10 and most of an 11th without Sidney Crosby, 14 without Evgeni Malkin, 11 without Paul Martin, 10 without Kris Letang and seven without James Neal.

Cup or bust might be too strong.

Or maybe not.

"I'm well aware of [the public sentiment]," Bylsma said. "I can only assume what's being said out there. I hear the talk about the Pirates in the summer. I hear it about Jamie Dixon. I get it in my case. You can't insulate yourself from it."

There is a positive to the pressure on Bylsma. Any coach in the NHL, with the possible exception of Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, would trade places with Bylsma. What coach wouldn't rather have a team that's expected to win than a team that's given little or no chance?

"I'd certainly rather be in this position," Bylsma said. "I embrace it. I absolutely embrace it. Those expectations are fantastic. I embrace the challenge we have ahead of us. I sure as hell want to do it with the guys we have in that room. I sure as hell want to do it with a group that's come together like this one has."

Bylsma nearly has beaten the odds already. The Penguins joined the NHL in 1967. None of their coaches has started and finished four consecutive seasons. "At some point [this week], I have to admit I thought about that," Bylsma said. "I thought about having only three or four more days to go to make it."

Bylsma has lasted by taking over the Penguins in February 2009 and leading the team to the Cup. He did it by leading the team to 101 points in the 2009-10 season, 106 points in 2010-11 and 108 points in 2011-12. He won the NHL's Jack Adams Award as most outstanding coach in 2011, mostly because he kept the team rolling despite long-term injuries to Crosby and Malkin.

The Penguins' 3-1 win Monday night in Ottawa gave Bylsma his 200th win in his 316th NHL game. Bruce Boudreau had been the fastest to 200, doing it in 326 games.

It is a remarkable accomplishment.

It also will mean nothing when the playoffs start next week.

"Pffftt!" Bylsma acknowledged.

A common perception is the Penguins don't need Bylsma to win the Cup. His gifted players can do it without him. "I'm sure there are lay people out there who think the toughest part of my job is buying my suits."

But guess who will be blamed if the Penguins fall short of winning the Cup or at least making the Cup final?

If that irks Bylsma, he doesn't let on publicly. But it should irk him. Often, the toughest team to coach is the one with the most star players. There are egos to manage, roles to define.

Bylsma also has had to deal with an extraordinary number of injuries to his highest-profile guys. "This team has won a lot of games with a lot of different players." Bylsma laughed when asked how difficult it will be to fit all of the pieces together when he has everyone healthy. "I'll let you know when I have the whole group together," he said.

Not that Bylsma is asking for sympathy.

"I like what we've built. I like how we play ...

"I don't see egos. I don't see having to worry about Brenden Morrow coming in or Jarome Iginla coming in. They're trying to add and do their part. I heard Brenden Morrow say, 'I don't want to screw it up.' I hear the guys who are hurt say, 'I want to get back so I can help us,' not, 'I want to score points or get this much ice time.' That's the type of players I have."

Bylsma has done a nice job of setting that tone. So far, his players have bought into his preaching. They play the same game no matter who is in the lineup. Of course, they play it a little better when Crosby and Malkin are on the ice.

The Penguins have had extraordinary success under Bylsma. In the regular season, anyway.

They won that Cup in 2009, but they have lost three consecutive playoff series since, including a second-round loss to Montreal in 2010.

"Certainly, you're highly disappointed after each loss," Bylsma said. "Last year was the biggest disappointment because of the team we had, the players we had and the success we had in the regular season."

The Philadelphia Flyers took out the Penguins in six games when the Penguins were the favorites to win the Cup. The fallout from that sporting nightmare will be nothing like what will happen if the Penguins go out in the first round again this spring.

"Everyone makes it seem like the odds-on favorite is a cinch to win the Stanley Cup," Bylsma said. "But no one who ever played the game of hockey thinks it's easy to win. Getting a great group of players together doesn't guarantee anything."

If you think Bylsma is justifying failure before the first playoff game even starts, you couldn't be more wrong. He likes his team's chances. He loves his team.

"Not a lot of coaches win the Stanley Cup," Bylsma said. "I was fortunate enough to do it once. When I win my second Cup, that'll be something really special. Even fewer coaches can say they won two."

I double-checked with Bylsma to make sure I heard his choice of words correctly. When? Not if?

"When," Bylsma said, firmly. "That's the word I used."

mobilehome - roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published April 25, 2013 4:00 AM


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