by Dan Rosen || NHL.com
Dan Bylsma’s goal when he took over as interim coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins 15 games ago was to turn his players into a bunch of writers.
What’s that you say?
Bylsma’s message to the Penguins on his first day as an NHL coach essentially was, don’t let the pundits have an opinion, pen the story for them instead.
"People are going to talk about us, write about us, say something about all of us, and we have 25 games to dictate it and write it for them," Bylsma told NHL.com. "The questions I had for the team were, ‘What do you want them to write? What do you want the story to be?’ Now go out and play that way. Don’t worry about saying anything to anybody, making up excuses or whatever, just go out and play the right way and we’ll be able to write the story ourselves."
The Penguins are putting together a piece worthy of the Pulitzer Prize.
Pittsburgh, which hosts Philadelphia Sunday in the NHL on NBC Game of the Week (12:30 p.m. ET), is 11-1-3 under Bylsma. Last year’s Eastern Conference champs have leapt from the outskirts of the playoff race into a fight for home-ice advantage in the first round.
Their goals and shots per game are up. Their power play is much better. They’re taking about the same number of penalties (4.14 per game), but they’re killing off more of them.
Sergei Gonchar seamlessly has worked himself back into the lineup, especially to the point on the power play, after missing the first 56 games following preseason shoulder surgery. And forwards Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin have given the top six a massive facelift.
However — and perhaps this is most essential in their remarkable turnaround — Penguins general manager Ray Shero can see that his team isn’t wound as tightly as it was earlier in the season under former coach Michel Therrien.
"It’s a looser group," Shero told NHL.com. "Mike had his personality and it obviously worked here for a couple of years. This year, for some reason, it wasn’t, and that was a judgment call on my part. Dan definitely has a different personality than Michel, so I think it’s looser, and certainly winning helps. Coaching to me is communication, one-on-one people skills and Dan brings that to the table. He has a background from being a player."
Shero said Bylsma’s “Write it ourselves” message has especially hit home with captain Sidney Crosby, who the GM believes is "maybe in the last two weeks playing the best hockey of his career, which is saying something."
Crosby has 20 points in his last 11 games, including 13 points since returning to the lineup seven games ago after he missed four games with a groin injury.
"I do see a jump in his step," Shero said. "And I say he could be playing the best hockey of his career not so much for the points, but it’s the way he’s playing the game at both ends of the rink, how he’s competing and leading — big goals, big plays, hard plays."
Shero specifically referenced the captain’s effort in the Penguins’ 5-4 win against the Flyers on Feb. 21, when Crosby had four points and scored the game-winner with 2:45 to play.
"He had a four-point game, but it wasn’t about the points," Shero said. "He had a refuse-to-lose attitude and was the best player on the ice, and both teams have a lot of good players. He just let it out and there was not a thing he had to say in the locker room afterwards. His leadership was on the ice, which was perfect."
Bylsma said the biggest differences between the team he first coached Feb. 16 at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island and the team he will coach Friday night at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh is comfort and understanding.
It didn’t take long for the players to grasp how Bylsma wants them to play because they quickly remembered how much fun it is to play a puck-possession game.
"If you’re comparing to Game 1, on that particular day I could sense the guys were shocked, emotionally on edge and aware of the situation," Bylsma said. "In a short period of time we have come a long way. The players know how we need to play, how we should play, and when we play that way we can dictate how the game is played. We can have the puck in the offensive zone and be a tough team to play against."
The instant success after the coaching change definitely has made coming to work fun again, Shero said. However, because the Penguins were so average for so long this season, they still are not assured of anything yet.
"We’ve got to win games to stay in it," Shero said of the playoff race. "We put ourselves behind the eight ball for sure."
Their 84 points going into Friday matches Philadelphia’s total, but the Flyers have three games in hand on the Penguins, who remain one mini-slump away from dropping out of the top eight again.
That doesn’t seem too likely, though. Their psyche is not that fragile anymore.
"None of our players have to tell anybody how they play because they get to go out there and do it," Bylsma said. "Those actions speak louder than anything you could say and that’s really what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to write the story of the Pittsburgh Penguins and 25 games is not a lot of time to do it, but we have good players, we’re a proud organization and let’s see what the story is."