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Penguins downplay Bylsma's return as Sabres coach

by Wes Crosby

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins admit it will be strange to face former coach Dan Bylsma for the first time when they host the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; MSG-B, BELL TV, ROOT). But for the most part it will be business as usual.

"I think the first time is always a little bit different," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "But I think at this point we've all kind of dealt with those kind of things before. And once you get in the game, really get into it, everything kind of becomes normal. But I think the initial start is always kind of [strange]."

Bylsma coached the Penguins for parts of six seasons, starting when he replaced Michel Therrien 57 games into the 2008-09 season. That season ended with Bylsma coaching the Penguins to the Stanley Cup.

He was fired following the 2013-14 season. The Sabres hired him May 28.

"It'll be weird, that's for sure," goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. "We got a Cup with him. So it'll be weird to have him on the other bench, on the other side."

Despite much regular-season success, Bylsma's final five seasons in Pittsburgh are remembered for disappointing Stanley Cup Playoff performances, including losing in four games to the Boston Bruins in the 2013 Eastern Conference Final and a seven-game loss to the New York Rangers in the 2014 Eastern Conference Second Round after holding a 3-1 series lead.

That doesn't take away from how the Penguins remember Bylsma.

"It'll definitely be special to see him come back," forward Pascal Dupuis said. "He started his whole coaching career here. He had an impact right away on this team as far as winning, and we had some good seasons. There were a couple lows there in the playoffs but there are definitely some good memories."

The Penguins finished first or second in their division in each of Bylsma's six seasons. On April 22, 2013, he became the fastest coach in NHL history to reach 200 wins in a 3-1 victory against the Ottawa Senators. In his final two seasons the Penguins won 66.9 percent of their games despite numerous injuries to key players, including defenseman Kris Letang's stroke in late January 2014.

The Penguins went 51-24-7 in 2013-14, and the 109 points were their most under Bylsma. Letang, who missed 45 games during Bylsma's final season, said he won't have much difficulty adjusting to seeing his former coach behind the opposite bench.

"It's always strange," Letang said. "But everybody knows that's the business. You're playing with 10 guys and the next year you're playing against them. So it's the same thing for a coach. … It's still fresh in our mind. It's only been a year and when you're in the NHL every year is special. You kind of remember all of them. So it's going to be something special."

The Penguins have moved on. They are 5-4-0 in their second season under coach Mike Johnston after a 3-1 win at the Washington Capitals on Wednesday, and the players remain focused on hoisting the Cup, just as they were at the start of each season under Bylsma.

Late in Johnston's debut season, the Penguins seemed to regress and their once-potent offense became dormant, leading to a must-win situation against the Sabres on the final day of last season, something they never faced with Bylsma. The Penguins won to earn the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference but they lost to the Rangers in five games in an Eastern Conference First Round series.

It hasn't been the smooth transition Pittsburgh had hoped for, but that could have been expected. The two coaches are noticeably different in philosophy and personality.

Once a month, a Penguins practice under Bylsma would end in a shootout competition, with the stipulation that the last player to score would be made to grow a mustache for the following month and be nicknamed "Mustache Boy." Johnston's practices periodically conclude with sprints that almost seem to pay homage to Kurt Russell's portrayal of Herb Brooks from the film "Miracle."

"They're obviously different personalities, different individuals," Dupuis said. "[Bylsma's] personality, he's an upbeat guy, a guy who loves to get a good laugh. He obviously was not too far removed from playing. I did play against him and he coached me right after, which was a little special. But that just shows how old I'm getting."

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