Speaking about the Eastern Conference Semifinal against Washington that starts Saturday (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS), Dan Bylsma at times sounded more like a hockey fan than the coach of the Penguins. Certainly he'll have one of the best seats for the superstar showdown between Sidney Crosby
and Alexander Ovechkin, with Evgeni Malkin
and Alexander Semin playing strong supporting roles on two of the regular season's five highest-scoring teams.
"Well, putting aside who I'm tied into and who the Capitals are tied into their team, I think it's amazing to have the ability to market the game like this and to have a clash between two up-and-coming organizations and players that we have and they have," Bylsma said. "Just from our last series, as well, the intrastate rivalry between the two teams (Penguins and Flyers), our TV ratings were extremely high, and just seeing the promotion of the game in and around our state and on the East Coast was fantastic.
"And this brings it to another level, and in a time where we are trying to grow our game, we have a lot of special, young players, not just two or three. We have a bunch. And to get them going head-to-head against each other is an amazing thing, and it's amazing because they have great personalities, they have a face that we can recognize, but also they are fantastic hockey talents and teams that play a high-speed, high-energetic game, and it makes for great entertainment.
"Putting aside all of our emotions and who we want to win, it makes for a great story and makes for great media and it makes for a great product. If I was the NHL, the only thing I could have wished for was the conference finals and not this, but this is still an exceptional time for us to play, and hopefully all hockey can capitalize on it."
No doubt the nationally televised cameras will be fixated on Crosby and Ovechkin in Saturday's Game 1. It's the matchup everyone wants to see, from the die-hard to the casual fan. Since the Washington-Pittsburgh matchup was determined Tuesday night, the word "circus" has been used often to describe the build-up, and with several days to marinate, the hype is taking on a life of its own.
How this occurred has as much to do with a surprising regular-season dust-up as it does the amazing skill of Crosby and Ovechkin, each a former Hart and Art Ross Trophy winner.
On Feb. 22, the two superstars exchanged shoves and words in a game at Washington's Verizon Center. The fun-loving Ovechkin appeared to have fun with the altercation, while Crosby seemed agitated, not so surprising if you've watched them since their rookie season of 2005-06. It's the A personality (Crosby), B personality (Ovechkin) theory. Bylsma didn't sound too worried about how his star will handle the rivalry -- or feud, call it what you will -- come Saturday.
"Well, I want our team and our players to be focused on how we play and what we need to do," he said. "Anything else that offers a distraction, certainly there are things that you have to deal with and certain questions that you're going to have to answer, but there are also some things that you can keep your focus away from and we are going to try to keep it on the ice and how we need to play.
"As far as the gamesmanship, this is not the first time that our guys have had to deal with some of this gamesmanship. Crosby has been pestered by Philadelphia and taunted by the crowd and had to deal with the quality player that they have, Mike Richards.
"They have dealt with this many times before. Certainly they are aware of it. Certainly they understand what's going to happen going in, immediate tension, the scrutiny. But these guys are pretty experienced, even though they are young and dealing with this situation. But again, the focus is on how they need to play and how we need to play for our team to have success."
Speaking of success, it has followed the Penguins around ever since Bylsma took over behind the bench for the ousted Michel Therrien on Feb. 15. He guided then-10th place Pittsburgh to an 18-3-4 mark in the regular season, securing the No. 4 seed in the postseason. A 4-2 series defeat of intrastate rival Philadelphia certainly didn't hurt Bylsma's reputation as well. While he and the Penguins were awaiting the identity of their Eastern Conference Semifinal opponent, General Manager Ray Shero removed the interim tag from Bylsma's title and agreed on a multi-year contract with the 38-year-old who brought an energetic, up-tempo style that was lacking under Therrien's direction.
"Dan Bylsma is one of the bright, young coaches in the game and did an exceptional job for us in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before getting this opportunity in Pittsburgh," Shero said.
With Pittsburgh's American Hockey League affiliate, Bylsma posted a 35-16-1-2 record in 54 games before his promotion.
In fact, Bylsma's situation is very much the same as his coaching adversary in this series, Bruce Boudreau, experienced last season with Washington. Boudreau was coaching Hershey of the AHL when Glen Hanlon was fired, leading to his promotion. The floundering Capitals caught fire and emerged as a force to be reckoned with. Now it's Bylsma's turn.
"I actually know Bruce quite well," Bylsma said. "He was in the Los Angeles organization (as a coach) when I was in the Los Angeles organization (as a player). I'm good friends with (current St. Louis Blues coach) Andy Murray (who coached Los Angeles from 1999-2006) and talk to him occasionally as coach-to-coach. And Bruce coached under him in the American League when Andy was in L.A. I've talked to Bruce occasionally in the summertimes, and then again when Bruce coached in Hershey; I coached against him as an assistant coach in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and know how his teams play and what kind of adjustments his teams can and often do in the course of a game and from game-to-game. And I have a pretty good idea of how he would like his team to play. So there's a lot of familiarity with him and his teams and how he plays."
Also familiar to Bylsma is 21-year-old rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov, who spent most of the season in Hershey, but is now firmly entrenched between the pipes for the Capitals since taking over for the ineffective Jose Theodore after Game 1 against the Rangers. Against New York, Varlamov went 4-2 with two shutouts, a 1.17 goals-against average, and a .952 save percentage. The Penguins didn't face Varlamov in his six regular-season appearances, so they'll rely on good old-fashioned scouting to solve the red-hot rookie.
"Our goalie coach, Gilles Meloche, has spent the last day and a half, two days looking at all of the tapes we can get a hold of; the shots, how he comes out, makes saves and where other teams have scored on him and where other teams have gotten second chances from, and we are putting together a tape for our players to see what they might expect from him," Bylsma said. "But certainly it's part of any series, how you want to try to get to a goalie, get traffic in front, get shots and get pucks in or around the blue paint.
"But I think in this series, in particular, a young goaltender and a relatively inexperienced goaltender is certainly in focus and we want to make it as difficult as we can on him. We want to get as many shots around him and to have to deal with that, and a young goaltender, it's what you're going to see throughout the playoffs and throughout the year. We are going to know where to shoot on this guy and where he has been susceptible to some chances. But it's not any different than against another guy."
Come Saturday, we'll all find out.
Contact Rocky Bonanno at email@example.com
Author: Rocky Bonanno | NHL.com Staff Writer