PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Penguins skated, worked on the power play, gathered at the chalk board. They worked on the penalty kill, skated, and returned to the chalk board.
Then they skated, and skated some more.
Dan Bylsma’s first practice as the Penguins’ coach was more like the first day of the pre-season, in tenor and in time. Most NHL teams don’t meet and practise for three hours with more than two-thirds of the season gone, but the desperate Penguins did that Wednesday.
They also didn’t need to be told why they were doing it.
“That was an attempt at training camp, in short order,” Bylsma said. “I think the players understand the situation, understand today would be different from a normal day.”
The defending Eastern Conference champions also understand time is fast running out.
With 24 games remaining, a talented team that was expected to make another Stanley Cup run is six points out of the conference’s eighth and final playoff spot, yet only eight points away from being in fifth place. A demanding stretch that sends them on the road for seven of eight games awaits after Thursday night’s home game against Montreal.
With seven losses in their last 11 games, two in overtime, the Penguins were playing like a team determined to get their coach fired, which is what happened to Michel Therrien on Sunday. The ouster of a coach who produced 94 wins the previous two seasons and the franchise’s first Stanley Cup final appearance in 16 years wasn’t universally applauded by fans, and it ramped up the pressure on an underperforming team.
“A lot was expected from us this year and obviously it’s not going so well, and I think everybody was pretty down every day, not having fun,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “We hate to lose obviously and it kind of got in the atmosphere of the room, everybody was more down. We had to make some changes.”
As 21-year-old captain Sidney Crosby said, “We knew we weren’t playing well and the result of that is usually the coach being fired. Basically, we’ve got to wake up.”
Bylsma’s recovery plan is more than risky, too, and a man who wants to coach in the NHL longer than the rest of this season knows it. He is attempting to reshape a young but sagging team by asking it to be more aggressive and instinctive, and less driven by a mindset of avoiding mistakes.
“I’m not interested in playing a 50/50 game, I’m not interested in seeing how the first period goes, I want us to establish our identity and how we need to play,” Bylsma said. “When you play that way, the scales tip in your favour. Those are the odds I like to bring to a game. Whether we’re coming into New York, we’re going into Philly, this is the way we’re going to play and if we play that way, we’re going to have success.”
To Bylsma, such a style means more up-ice rushes and forechecking, a greater emphasis on getting the puck back as quickly as possible and less skating from side-to-side.
“He’s really detailed in his systems, and I mean the systems are going to be a drastic change from what we were playing before,” defenceman Brooks Orpik said. “The mentality is he just wants us to be a lot more aggressive in every zone, play on your toes and play with confidence, don’t go out there playing not to make mistakes.”
Casting off Therrien’s disciplined system, one that many Penguins played in the minors before reaching Pittsburgh, and putting in an approach based on aggressiveness in both zones has inherent risks. That’s especially so late in a season, when each loss becomes more difficult to overcome.
Being aggressive can create as many mistakes as being passive, especially when players are learning a new way, and style won’t matter if it leads to the same old results.
“It’s definitely an up-and-down game that’s fun to play as players, it gets you involved, gets you moving around,” defenceman Rob Scuderi said. “It’s more based off instincts and making a read yourself, and then the next guy reading off you. It’s different but it seems pretty good. … (Therrien’s system) was a lot more rigid.”
Bylsma, an infrequent scorer himself during nine seasons as an NHL forward, also knows the Penguins must get more offence from players other than Evgeni Malkin and Crosby, the NHL’s No. 1 and No. 3 scorers, respectively.
As usual, the Penguins are searching – much as they have for four seasons – for linemates skilled enough to react to Crosby’s playmaking and ability to read plays before they develop. They had such a forward last season after trading for all-star Marian Hossa, but couldn’t re-sign him.
So much to do, so little time to accomplish it. The Penguins’ challenge is great and Bylsma’s may be even greater, given his NHL head coaching career consists of a single shootout loss to the Islanders on Monday.
“I think he’s excited for this opportunity, and that’s the way we have to look at this – as a great challenge and a great way for us to raise our game and find a way to (get) ourselves in the playoffs,” said Crosby, who is experiencing his third coaching change in four seasons. “Our game had to change.”
Fleury, whose inconsistency is a major reason for the Penguins’ falloff, knows it won’t be difficult to judge the success or failure of the new coach’s late-season makeover.
“We had to change a little bit, if we wanted to make the playoffs,” he said. “It wasn’t working well. I think at the end of the season, we’ll have a better idea. But we had to do something.”