Wednesday June 10th, 2009

Among the memories that Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma has tucked away from his playing days in Anaheim is the anguish of losing a Game 7. It was six years ago -- on June 9, 2003 -- that he picked up a copy of USA Today only to see his likeness splashed on the front page of the sports section. He had become the illustrative example of the Ducks being denied by New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur.

Though the newspaper clipping about the Ducks' 3-0 loss is saved somewhere, Bylsma says, "I don't look at it, I don't pick it up. It's not something that I like to think about. It's pretty much emblazoned in my memory."

It's an experience the 38-year-old coach probably never imagined he'd be able to replace, until now. With his Penguins forcing a seventh game Tuesday night, Bylsma finally has a chance to taste the sweetest victory, having already consumed most bitter defeat. "I don't want that experience again," he said. "I had it in '03. I know these guys had it last year. I don't think they want to gain that experience again."

Bylsma's road back to this point started on February 15, when he became the unlikely replacement for Michel Therrien, the coach who had led the Penguins to the Cup final last year but whose style began to wear in the dressing room. With Pittsburgh falling out of the playoff picture and fading fast, the unknown coach of the Penguins' AHL affiliate stepped in and opened things up for the young team.

"Dan brings a lot of energy every day," center Jordan Staal said. "Sometimes, you don't even think he sleeps at night . . . 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, and he's fun to play for."

The change in philosophy jump-started a remarkable comeback, from tenth to fourth place in the Eastern Conference in a matter of eight weeks. Starting with a five-game road trip, the team was reminded just how good it can be. "We won the first three, and then we made a couple of trades, picked up Billy [Guerin] and [Craig] Adams,"said defenseman Rob Scuderi. "I thought after that, once you saw the team play, we had a realistic chance of really turning this around. For me, that was a turning point in the season."

With their new additions helping out, and the return of defenseman Sergei Gonchar from shoulder surgery, the Penguins began to play like a championship team for their first-time coach. Bylsma, who has often said that he's not the type of person to deny or ignore the thoughts that run through his mind, still can't believe it sometimes. "I do think about [the journey to this point] pretty much daily," he said. "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, it's an amazing thing to have accomplished and earned."

But they really can't relish anything yet. What the Penguins achieved this season will only be sour consolation if they don't find a way to win in Joe Louis Arena on Friday night. Pittsburgh has scored just twice in three games in Detroit while the Red Wings put 11 past Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. "We have to be better in Detroit around their goalie," Bylsma said. "We have to get more pucks there, and we have to win those battles."

The loose pucks, the one-on-one struggles, the face-offs, the shots and the goals, they won't ever mean more than they will on Friday. It's the moment they wait for, dream of, fantasize about all their lives. "We played a hundred and something games this season, and it comes down to one game. How special is that?" Penguins forward Max Talbot said after Game 6. "Every time you play street hockey, what game do you play? You play Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final."

It's an opportunity of a lifetime, and the biggest challenge these Penguins have ever faced. And while getting their best from their support players, as they did in Game 6, is great, what they will need is the best game from their stars. Evgeni Malkin, who had been superb all postseason, hasn't registered a point in two games. Sidney Crosby has come up empty in Detroit despite a boatload of chances. When the big moments arrive, it's always about how the great ones respond.

Crosby, too, has his own picture imperfect moment. In an NHL promo that asked, "Is this the year?" the Penguins captain pops out of an iconic image of defeat from last year's Cup final. He stares into the camera and says, "I never want to be in this photograph again."

Well, Sid, here's your chance. Your coach surely understands how you feel.

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