DETROIT – It’s been quite a ride for Dan Bylsma.
When the Pittsburgh Penguins were playing in last year’s Stanley Cup final, the 38-year-old was working as an assistant coach with the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Now he’s the head coach of the NHL team as it heads into a championship rematch with the Detroit Red Wings.
Bylsma took over the job when Michel Therrien was fired in February and the Penguins haven’t looked back since. Neither has he.
“I couldn’t have imagined that inside of 12 months that this is the situation I would find myself in,” Bylsma said Friday. “Did I have goals and aspirations and did I think it was a possibility? Was I gathering experience and working towards a day like this? I hoped I was. I thought I could be.
“But certainly inside of 12 months, I never would have taken that bet.”
The Stanley Cup will take on even more significance for the former NHLer because of the opponent.
Bylsma grew up as a Red Wings fan in Grand Haven, Mich., and has been hearing from lots of people in his hometown in recent days. Many of them had been pulling for the Penguins through the opening rounds of the playoffs.
“I get texts and emails saying: ‘Cheering for you up to this point, now going back to the Wings,”‘ Bylsma said with a laugh. “I hold no animosity in that regard.
“I’d be cheering for the Wings if I was a Wings fan my whole life, even if I knew Dan Bylsma or one of my brothers.”
His only previous experience with the Stanley Cup came as a member of the Anaheim Ducks when they lost the Stanley Cup to New Jersey in 2003.
After retiring four years ago, he never imagined he’d get back so soon.
“I think life twists and turns quickly, and it’s not always how we expect it,” said Bylsma. “The best thing you can do is be prepared for an opportunity when the opportunity arises. And I believe I was.”
The Detroit Red Wings haven’t exactly hid their frustration with the NHL over the scheduling of the Stanley Cup.
Saturday’s Game 1 will come just three nights after the end of the Western Conference final and will be quickly followed with Game 2 on Sunday. Coach Mike Babcock wonders why everything is so compressed now after being quite spread out earlier in the post-season.
“I mean, I could have went bear-hunting every series in between games,” said Babcock.
His frustration is understandable in light of all the injuries his players are currently nursing. Babcock is also worried that it might hamper the overall quality of play.
“It just seems to me we have two of the greatest teams in the world, star power-wise for the game,” he said. “I don’t think we need 14 days off. But there’s a reason the NFL who, in my opinion is the biggest promotional horse maybe besides NASCAR in sport, takes two weeks off before the Super Bowl – to hype it up.”
One member of the Wings who isn’t complaining is goalie Chris Osgood.
He got a couple back-to-back starts during the regular season and thinks the task will be even easier to handle now.
“The games are just going to keep rolling on,” he said. “At this time you don’t want to practise that much. You want to get out, play the games. That’s the best part of it right now is getting on the ice and playing the games.”
There was a familiar feeling in the air for the Pittsburgh Penguins as they again travelled to Detroit to start the Stanley Cup.
They’re intent on writing a different end to this year’s championship series. Captain Sidney Crosby counts last year’s six game loss to Detroit as the most difficult moment of his professional career.
“It was tough,” said Crosby. “It’s difficult for everyone. You dream your whole life about being in that position and you work so hard, and right at that moment you never know if you’re going to get another chance.
“Talk to a guy like Billy Guerin – he won 14 years ago and this is his first time back. So we feel pretty fortunate to get a second chance here the following year.”
Where else would Ty Conklin be?
It’s almost June and there are only two NHL teams left playing games so it should be no surprise that the Detroit Red Wings backup goalie is a member of one of them. This is his third trip to the Stanley Cup final in four years, following previous visits with Pittsburgh (2008) and Edmonton (2006).
Besides winning his first championship, there’s one other thing he’d like to change.
“I’ve always been in a support role,” said Conklin. “I’d love to be playing, I’m not going to lie. Everybody wants to play.”
He’s actually been part of four consecutive conference finals. Conklin was a member of the Buffalo Sabres in 2007 and backed up Ryan Miller on the team that lost to Ottawa in the semifinal series.
Odds and Ends
The last championship rematch in any North American sports league came when the NBA’s Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz met in 1997 and 1998 … Sidney Crosby (1.43) and Evgeni Malkin (1.29) are each in the top five in the NHL’s all-time points per game average in the playoffs … Dan Bylsma could become the first rookie head coach to win the Stanley Cup since Montreal’s Jean Perron in 1986 … The only two Red Wings gone since last year’s championship? Dallas Drake and Dominik Hasek.