"When I walked into a room with Wayne Gretzky, I was pretty confident at that point and time that I wasn't as good as he was and I didn't know if I could play in the National Hockey League. When I walked into the room yesterday for the pregame meeting, there was a sense of confidence that I could look these guys in the eyes. I was confident in what I was going to say and how I was going to say it and the message I was saying, and confident that I could to the job." - Then-Interim Coach Dan Bylsma of the Penguins, Feb. 17
The series only lasted four games, but there were a multitude of heroes for the Pittsburgh Penguins in their Eastern Conference finals domination of the feisty but inept Carolina Hurricanes, which ended tonight with a 4-1 victory in Raleigh.
There was Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, playing like a return trip to the Stanley Cup finals was mandatory rather than a possibility. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, as reliable and protected as Cam Ward was wobbly and exposed. Defenseman Rob Scuderi, continuing a postseason climb into Brooks Orpik-money as a pending free agent.
But as the Penguins advance to play for the Stanley Cup against either the Detroit Red Wings or Chicago Blackhawks, two heroes rise above the rest, and neither played a shift in the series: Coach Dan Bylsma and General Manager Ray Shero.
As Bylsma mentioned in the opening quote, there wasn't a moment since he took the helm that it appeared he didn't belong behind an NHL bench or that his players hadn't bought into what he was selling.
The Penguins went 18-3-4 record over their last 25 regular season games. They survived the Philadelphia Flyers and handled the intense spotlight of the Crosby/Ovechkin showdown right down to a Game 7. Along the way, Bylsma deftly pushed the right buttons where Michel Therrien may have overreacted to momentum swings.
Did the poise the Penguins earned in their Cup run last season make Bylsma's job a tad easier? Sure. They looked unflappable in a multitude of pressure situations. But that shouldn't diminish how Bylsma's system and his guidance put this team four wins away from the Cup.
Of course, Bylsma wouldn't be here if it weren't for Shero. He pulled the trigger on Therrien, and then pulled the trigger on a number of moves that salvaged the Penguins' season. It can be argued that, in consecutive seasons, Shero's made some gutsy, ass-on-the-line decision to get the Penguins into the Stanley Cup finals; but this year, he was correcting his own mistakes. We referred to it as "Operation: Grow a Pair" near the deadline:
Shero has now added Chris Kunitz, Craig Adams and Bill Guerin to this team. Give the man credit: He realized his decisions last summer neutered this locker room, and has reinserted a spine into this franchise. If that puts the Penguins back in the mindset of last season's team, then Pittsburgh's dangerous.
It did, and they are. Guerin had two goals and five points against Carolina. Kunitz had five points and was a plus-5. Even Adams had two goals and three points, following up that critical Game 7 tally against the Washington Capitals.
The Western Conference isn't settled yet, but the giddy anticipation for a rematch against the Red Wings is something every puckhead outside of Chicago's probably feeling tonight. (Unless you're someone that just hates reruns, no matter the quality of the program.) The storylines run much deeper than Marian Hossa either getting or giving the gasface to Pittsburgh; in contrast to last year's finals, the sequel promises much greater sports theater.
And the performance is already starting for Pittsburgh, as Sidney Crosby did the unthinkable and touched the Prince of Wales Trophy in an effort to change the mojo for the finals. (Thanks Jefflred.)
Quote of the year from CBC Sports: "He touched, he grabbed it but he didn't lift it, Bob. That's for sure."