"I think we're going after teams a bit more, skating with a lot of authority and being physical. We've been consistent, which is huge. I'd say consistency and they way we've been going after teams is the biggest difference."
-- Sidney Crosby
His belief certainly didn't change when he was promoted to interim coach on Feb. 15, even though the team was foundering in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, five points out of a playoff spot with 25 games to go.
Despite their struggles, Bylsma believed the Penguins would make the playoffs. That confidence became contagious as Pittsburgh rattled off an 18-3-4 run, piling up 40 points to close the regular season with 99 -- good enough to secure a first-round playoff meeting with cross-state rival Philadelphia.
Bylsma's start made history, too. According to Elias Sports Bureau, Bylsma equaled the best 25-game start in NHL history for a coach hired during a season. Bep Guidolin had 40 points in his first 25 games (20-5-0) with the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in 1972-73 after replacing Tom Johnson in February. The 40-point run put Bylsma in a tie for second all-time for any coach's first 25 games. Todd McLellan had 43 points in his first 25 games with the San Jose Sharks this season.
"Fantastic would be the word to describe this ride," he said. "It's certainly an anxious time. There were lots of nerves and emotions and different things dealing with the team and the situation we were in. But you don't get these opportunities often in life. I prepared and thought that some day this would come. I didn't know it would be this soon, but what an opportunity for me. I don't think opportunities like these are bad things or pressure situations. This is a great situation and a very good team with very good players. It's a great opportunity and I've tried to treat every day just like that.”
Bylsma, 39, did not have the luxury of a training camp or an extended preparation period when he took over for Michel Therrien in mid-February -- he had to win immediately to get the Penguins back into the playoffs after they came up two wins short of capturing the Stanley Cup last spring.
Since Bylsma used a similar system with the AHL's Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, he didn't have to completely change the NHL Penguins' systems -- he just fine-tuned them.
"Going at teams, I think that builds confidence. You're forcing teams to play the way you want them to when you're at the top of your game. Just that mentality alone allows you to build confidence. As for the way we practice, it's been a lot of high tempo and skating – a game that, if you play it the right way, it can be fun. I think guys enjoy that and they like being in attack mode and going after teams and being physical. That's the kind of hockey you're going to see in the playoffs."
The Penguins have enjoyed the aggressive approach that Bylsma, who spent parts of nine seasons as a gritty NHL forward, brought to the team. The players believe it lets them take advantage of their quickness and skill. But most of all, the team has fed off Bylsma's upbeat, positive approach.
"We've made some adjustments. I think it's a little more detailed. We have some faceoff plays and little outlets or options that give us another card in our deck, which makes it easier for us. I think it's been working," center Maxime Talbot said. "At the same time, we had guys realizing that we had to get going because at the beginning of the year, we had all these expectations, which were justified -- but we started losing and asking questions and all of a sudden, you're in January and in 10th place and you wonder what's going on.
"We have a lot of passion right now. The guys are ready to go and we're confident again. We know we can go far and we know we can rely on each other and everyone is really committed. That makes us a good team."
Buoyed by the return of defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who missed the season's first 56 games with a shoulder injury, and the addition of wingers Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz via trade, the Penguins got hot and stayed hot.
In a defining stretch, the Pens completed the first 5-0 road trip in franchise history in early March. They had 66 points when they went into Chicago on Feb. 27 and returned home with 76 after winning at Chicago, Dallas, Tampa Bay, Florida and Washington.
The Penguins then bolstered their playoff chances with a 6-1-1 showing that earned 13 of a possible 16 points in a franchise-record eight-game homestand that began March 14 with a 4-3 win over Ottawa and wrapped up April 1with a 6-1 shellacking of New Jersey. In between, the Penguins beat Boston, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Calgary and the New York Rangers.
"We're playing well and we have to prove it to ourselves, that's the biggest thing," Crosby said. "Other teams see that and that's fine, but, as a group, everyone has stepped up their game. We're making some really good steps and it's good to see everyone playing well collectively. That's a great sign. We did a great job at home. When you get the opportunity to be at home for that long at this time of year, you need to take advantage of it. We did that, but it's only going to get tougher."
Not only did the Penguins secure a playoff spot, but they are surging at the right time.
"I give the guys a lot of credit. I have almost approached this and viewed this as kind of like an Olympics-type of time for us even though it's been a month and a-half. You get a short amount of time and you have to be very focused and very attentive," Bylsma said. "We don't have the chance to go through the steps of an 82-game season. They've been great; they've been attentive. Are we there yet? No. Are there adjustments when it's an 82-game season or a lull sometimes? Yes.
"The challenge is that, by the last 20 percent or 10 percent of your season, the players know what it is and have bought in and they take control of the team. They are the guys who need to buy in. They are the guys that, when they commit and work together, then you have the potential to play the kind of hockey you need to have a chance. We've had to do that in 20-some games. Our guys have done an amazing job of that. We still have a ways to go. We still have games to win and better hockey to play. But, a lot of credit goes to our guys and the way they've bought in and played."
With the Bylsma Era in Pittsburgh all of two months old, the new coach says his players should get the credit for the turnaround.
"I think we have been quickly able to change our identity of how we're going to play the game and how we want to play the game," he said. "The best thing the guys have done, in a very short period of time, is they've had a clear vision of what that game should look like. We haven't been perfect at it and there have been periods in games where we haven't been good, but we knew what we did wrong immediately. We knew we weren't playing the right way and we could get back to it without too many hiccups in the road. Going out and executing it, that's a credit to the guys in this room to be able to do that in a short amount of time."