Bylsma, 38, has completely changed Pittsburgh's fortunes since being named coach on Feb. 15. He has taken the Penguins from the brink of a lost season -- they were in 10th place in the East and out of the playoffs on the day he arrived -- to one game away from winning the Stanley Cup.
The opportunity to win the final game of the 2008-09 NHL season will come in Friday night's Game 7 at Joe Louis Arena (8 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS).
For Bylsma, the journey to this winner-take-all game against the Detroit Red Wings has an air of incredulity to it. He can't -- and won't -- deny that.
Bylsma started the season as a minor-league coach, just five years removed from a playing career in the NHL that was spent mostly as fourth-line grinder. He retired as a player in 2004 and moved right into a minor-league coaching apprenticeship. This season was his first as the head man with Pittsburgh's American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
But with the Penguins' season spiraling out of control, Pittsburgh General Manager Ray Shero decided a change was needed. Michel Therrien, the man who presided over the Penguins' renaissance and trip to last year's Stanley Cup Final, was out. Bylsma, touted as a new voice and as a coach who could relate better to some of Pittsburgh's younger players, was the new boss.
"I think Dan brings a lot of energy every day," said center Jordan Staal
, one of the team's young cornerstones. "You know, sometimes you don't even think he sleeps at night. When he wakes up in the morning he's ready to go every time.
"It's always nice to come to the rink and have him jumping around and excited to go out and play some hockey. He's always fun to be around with. And he's fun to play for. Obviously, everyone wants to work hard for him."
With Bylsma at the helm and the players redoubling their efforts, the Penguins started winning -- and haven't stopped.
Pittsburgh climbed all the way to fourth place in the East by the time the regular-season ended. They bounced the hated Philadelphia Flyers in the first round before upsetting the Washington Capitals in an epic seven-game, second-round series. A stunningly effective four-game sweep of Carolina in the Eastern Conference Finals followed, setting up this Stanley Cup Final rematch against the defending champion Red Wings.
Through it all, Bylsma has never forgotten how blessed he is to be given this opportunity so early in his coaching career.
"I do think about it pretty much daily," he said. "I mean, my family has come to see me and it's like can you believe what's happening? Can you believe? And I'm like, 'Not really. I can't believe it.' I've said this many times, I'm not a person who likes to deny my thoughts or what I’m going through or ignore everything around me. This is a unique opportunity. Fifteen times there's been a Game 7 (in the Final). To play for the Stanley Cup, it's a unique and great opportunity."
Make no mistake, though, Bylsma has earned the right to have his name inscribed on the Stanley Cup if the Penguins win Friday night. The job he has done during the past four months is as good as the one done by any other coach to win hockey's most-cherished trophy.
Quite simply, he rebuilt his team's psyche, allowing the players to believe once again in the skill and character that delivered them to last year's Final. Yes, Bylsma instituted a more up-tempo philosophy on the ice, but it was upgrading the team's mental approach that has paid the biggest dividends.
"The game, by nature, is aggressive, in-your-face and confrontational," said Bylsma, who played that way as a limited-talent, all-heart player. "If you're not playing it that way, you know it. You know when another team's taking it to you. You know when you're waiting or letting the play come to you.
"So it wasn't a hard thing to say, 'Let's get on our toes and let's go after this thing and play the right way and get to the offensive zone, and play at a pace that makes it tough for other teams to play with us.' "
It may not have been hard to say, but it was a necessary message, the players say now.
"I think coach Bylsma has brought a new sense of confidence into the room," veteran defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "At the time when they made the switch, things weren't going so well for us and our confidence wasn't there -- even though we had a good set of young, core players. Sometimes when you bring in a (new) philosophy, it just helps." Bylsma never panicked. But just as importantly, he didn't sugarcoat the situation his team faced. He talked about the fear of failure, of falling short of the Stanley Cup dreams that he and his team faced as they prepared for a do-or-die Game 6.
"Dan just told us before (Game 6) that we were in the same position we had been after Game 4 -- we needed two wins to win the Stanley Cup," Scuderi said. "That really calmed the room down and let the guys go out and play hockey."
The result was a season-saving 2-1 win that has delivered Bylsma to the end of a journey he couldn't even contemplate just a few months ago. He's not sure how it will end, but he has thoroughly enjoyed the ride.
"Where we've come since last year at this time, since the start of the season, since February 15 -- wherever you want to pick up the story line from -- it's an amazing thing to have accomplished and earned.
"(Penguins forward) Max Talbot said it (after Game 6), win or lose (Game 7), we should be proud of where we've come from and how we've played. That's the way they should feel, and they should understand exactly how precious this opportunity is coming for Game 7."
Bylsma, perhaps more than anyone involved in Game 7, understands the precious opportunity that awaits him Friday night.
Author: Shawn P. Roarke | NHL.com Managing Editor