PITTSBURGH (AP) - The Pittsburgh Penguins must be wondering if an entire team is eligible for the comeback player of the year award.
The Penguins were one more losing streak away from being out of playoff contention when Dan Bylsma took over as interim coach on Feb. 15. Last season's Stanley Cup finalists stood barely over .500 at 27-25-5, stuck in 10th place in the Eastern Conference.
A team that seemed poised a season ago to be a power for years instead found itself in the running to be the NHL's most disappointing. The Penguins had two exceptional scorers in Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby but not much else - no locker room chemistry, no resiliency, no reliable goaltending and not much of a power play.
Their confidence? Nonexistent. Their psyche? Fragile at best. Their propensity to make the kind of mistakes that led to locker room rants by feeling-the-pressure coach Michel Therrien? All too common.
The Penguins weren't responding to Therrien's my-way-or-else style, one that resulted in 94 regular season wins the previous two seasons but wasn't working with players who were too worried about committing mistakes to make the kind of instinctive plays needed to win low-scoring hockey games.
So, as it usually is in the NHL when a talented team is playing poorly, it was old coach out, new coach in.
What followed Bylsma's hiring was one of the NHL's most remarkable turnarounds in recent seasons, a 16-3-4 run that has carried the Penguins into the postseason for a third consecutive season. It also has stamped them as an opponent not many teams would choose when the playoffs begin next week.
"It saved the season," goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said of general manager Ray Shero's decision to replace Therrien with Bylsma, a studious former NHL player who has written books about coaching but lacked NHL head coaching experience.
The Penguins guaranteed themselves a seeding of no lower than seventh in the conference playoffs by beating Tampa Bay 6-4 on Tuesday night, the 17th game in the last 19 in which they've gained at least one point. With two games remaining, Thursday at home against the Islanders and Saturday at Montreal, the Penguins could finish as high as fourth in the conference.
"We've kind of been running a sprint for the last month and a half, two months, and now we have to get ready for the playoffs," Bylsma said Wednesday. "The last two games are important in how we want to play as a team, and getting sharp and ready for the playoffs ... to get refocused for an up level of intensity and emotions."
That shouldn't be a problem. The Penguins have been playing must-win games - and have won most of them - since mid-February.
To accomplish that, Bylsma changed styles, abandoning Therrien's disciplined, defense-first system for one designed to constantly pressure the puck, an approach that creates more risks but emphasizes the Penguins' vast offensive skills.
Most of all, Bylsma changed the way he communicated with Penguins players, telling each one what he expected rather than sending messages through the media or by the way he handed out playing time.
"They're just completely opposite coaches," forward Jordan Staal said. "Therrien is a hard coach and demands a lot from players, as well as Dan, but it's kind of a different style and I think guys are enjoying it so far."
Did Bylsma's hiring, as Fleury said, really make all the difference in a season that was nearly lost?
"Obviously, the coaching change was the big thing for us, the new system and the way everyone started playing together," Staal said. "Guys started playing their roles and doing a great job of it - penalty kill and the power play started getting better - and just little things that started coming together."
Big things, too. Crosby is thriving in Bylsma's system, getting nine goals and 13 assists in his last 15 games to secure his third 100-point season in four NHL seasons.
"We had to prove it and earn our way back," Crosby said. "We've had some good results. We expected to be in the playoffs. It was tough, but it's been great that we turned things around."
Not that the Penguins don't have something to play for in their two remaining games, besides a higher playoff seeding. They want Evgeni Malkin to become their second NHL scoring champion in three seasons, following Crosby's title in 2006-07, and their fourth in the last dozen years, joining multiple-time leaders Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.
Malkin goes into the final few games with a 110-108 lead over reigning champion Alex Ovechkin of Washington.
Regardless of how Malkin finishes, the Penguins are certain of going into the playoffs on the same kind of late-season surge that carried them to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals last season.
"The guys were not really happy when we saw ourselves out of the playoffs," forward Petr Sykora said. "I think we are playing well right now, I feel as good as last year going into the playoffs. ... Going in right now, winning and playing the way we are, we can do something special again."