It was June 7, 2009, and the Pittsburgh Penguins were coming off a 5-0 loss to the Detroit Red Wings. For the second straight year, the Penguins were returning home for Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final down 3-2 in the series.
Several months later, we asked them about doing an Inside Hockey segment on the team meeting called that day. We had heard about some of the comments. Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma admitted that one of the speeches was among the most inspiring things he ever heard.
The Penguins ultimately declined to do the piece. They were very good about it, but felt the things said should stay private (we'd heard the best messages were delivered by Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko and Philippe Boucher). Buoyed by the conversation, Pittsburgh regrouped to win its first Stanley Cup in 17 years.
This year, as Bylsma searches for answers heading into Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final on Wednesday (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 8 p.m. ET), there's no doubt that refocusing will be a critical part of this. But this challenge may even be more difficult than in 2009. As the Boston Bruins arrived in Pittsburgh for Game 1, one of them said: "We can do this. We like the matchup. If we win the forecheck battle at their goal-line, we can beat them."
Right now, they're not just winning there, they're winning everywhere on the ice. They look ridiculously good. And if the Penguins are going to come back, it's going to be with three of the last five games in Boston. But they have to try and find a way, so here's some idea of what Bylsma will try to do:
If I was coaching the Penguins, I'd put together a highlight video of everything done right this season. The main attraction would be the second-round series win over Ottawa, which Senators head coach Paul MacLean called a "clinic" against his team. Remind these guys how good they can be. At times like this, the fans and media can be negative, but the team can't. You have to sell the players on this one because it all starts with attitude.
Stop trying to prove things
Before the series began, a couple of the Penguins said they were tired of the "Big Bad Bruins versus Finesse Penguins" storyline.
"We're as tough as they are," one of them said.
That's true. Ask the rest of the teams in the Eastern Conference and they will tell you Pittsburgh is as physical and aggressive as any team on that side of the country. But it has to be done in the flow of the game. The Penguins may be winning the hit count. But that's useless when you're so pre-occupied with it you aren't acting like yourselves in the process.
Be realistic about problem
When New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur was a guest on our Inside The Game studio panel, he said the Penguins clearly believed more in backup netminder Tomas Vokoun right now than in Marc-Andre Fleury. When that bubble burst early in Game 2 -- not that it was all Vokoun's fault -- the team sagged like a popped balloon.
This is Bylsma's greatest challenge. Tuukka Rask looks magnificent for Boston and Bylsma must convince his players that they can overcome that current advantage in goal. Bylsma's got to get them to understand that the only way to build momentum is to play a stereotypical road game in what will be a wild TD Bank Garden on Wednesday.
"Too many gifts ... need to protect the goalie," one NHLer texted after Game 2.
Make them aware of consequences
Once you've built them up, you've got to put a little fear in them. I haven't had a chance to ask the Chicago Blackhawks about it yet. But there's no doubt they realized potential changes were coming if they didn't come back to beat Detroit in the conference semifinals. One series victory in three years was not going to make Blackhawks president John McDonough a happy guy. Now Chicago's won five straight games and looks terrific. Sometimes, you need to look around and think, "If we don't do this, this group of guys I like playing with might not stay together, especially in a salary-cap world."
From 2010-12, the Penguins actually had a losing record in the playoffs. They were 12-14 and won exactly one playoff round. Part of that can be attributed to Sidney Crosby's injuries. But even without him, they are too good to be that disappointing. Pittsburgh is a destination in the NHL circles. Good players want to go there. Maybe a subtle reminder of that is necessary.
All of that still might not be good enough. The Bruins look so confident, as in "We've been here before. We got this." For the Penguins, it starts with baby steps and the proper attitude. After all, don't hockey fans want to see some semblance of a competitive series?
1. Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference final were the first time this year that Sidney Crosby did not have a point in back-to-back games.
2. Bruins captain Zdeno Chara is averaging 28:41 of playing time through 14 playoff games. In the last six playoffs, only one defencemen has been on the ice that much in that many appearances -- Chris Pronger at 29:03 for 23 games in 2010. No one skated more in last year's playoffs than Marek Zidlicky. If Chara plays the same amount of games (24) as Zidlicky, then at his current pace, he'll log 120 more minutes of action than the Devils defenceman.
3. Nathan Horton has 34 points in 35 playoff games. At even strength in those games, Boston is outscoring opponents 38-12 with him on the ice. The Bruins have some tough calls to make -- Patrice Bergeron will get taken care of -- but I wouldn't want to fool around with the chemistry of those forward lines.
4. Bryan Bickell's current salary is $600,000. It sounds like the Blackhawks wanted to keep him somewhere between $1.5-$2 million. Let's see: big guy who can finish in a weak free-agent year, proving he can play with good players ... yeah, it's going to go higher than that.
5. One coach before the Western final began: "Chicago: two series with almost zero travel. Minnesota did not bruise them. Detroit battled, but they don't beat you up. Los Angeles: one long travel series, two opponents who take a lot out of you. A four-hour flight on short rest leading to a back-to-back. The Blackhawks need to own those games." I called him to tell him how smart he looked so far. His reply: "It will be different in L.A."
6. Coaching stuff. Glen Gulutzan's interview with the Vancouver Canucks will be some time this week. I still think there will be more candidates (Kings assistant John Stevens, for example). But there is a growing sense they really like Dallas Eakins, who coaches the AHL Toronto Marlies. Word is Eakins will do a second interview with Vancouver.
7. It would be a surprise if the Dallas Stars hired a new guy before Grand Rapids is eliminated from the AHL playoffs. Stars general manager Jim Nill and Griffins head coach Jeff Blashill have a history and a mutual respect. It doesn't mean Blashill is the favourite, but it would be a surprise if there wasn't a conversation over coffee and bonbons. Grand Rapids leads the Western Conference Final 3-2 over Oklahoma City.
8. Does John Tortorella get an interview in Vancouver? Canucks GM Mike Gillis said in his season-ending media conference that breaking up the team's core wasn't high on his list of priorities. Vancouver has, what, a three-year window with that group? Tortorella took a beating last week. But other NHL executives don't dislike him as much as the media does. They will tell you he is perfect for a "win-now" situation.
9. Obviously, there are some legit questions. The Canucks have had enough public distractions the last couple of seasons and don't need daily fights. What style would Tortorella use? The "safe is death" (Tampa Bay Lightning) version or the "block every shot and always make contact in the corner" (New York Rangers) plan?
10. The other thing here is how Tortorella feels now. It doesn't sound like the Rangers' original plan was to change coaches. But the exit interviews and post-season player commentary jarred them into action. No doubt Tortorella was stunned by his dismissal; one GM thought he could benefit from a break.
11. I would love to sit in on one of the Vancouver interviews because I think Canucks management is being quizzed as much as the potential coaches are. Firing Alain Vigneault didn't solve all of the problems. These guys want to know how the goalie situation will be dealt with and, if Gillis truly doesn't want to tamper with the core, what are his ideas for improvement?
12. It's expected Rangers GM Glen Sather will wait a bit to see what happens with Phoenix Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett. But it's not hard to find hockey people who think Vigneault is a great fit for Manhattan. Those same people say Sather thinks highly of both men and would be content with either. That brings us to Mark Messier.
13. Last year, the Edmonton Oilers considered Messier, Brent Sutter, Todd Nelson and Ralph Krueger (who got the job) to replace head coach Tom Renney. There may have been more, but that's who I can pin down. At some point, Messier was offered it. Oilers president Kevin Lowe declined a request to comment, so exact details are sketchy. But Messier considered it, took a little bit of time and said "no" for family reasons.
14. Messier's strengths: "Being a head coach now is about delivering a message," one source said. "And no one delivers a message better than Mark Messier. You have to find good people around him, but that can be done." Obviously, the big question is experience. One coach I've asked about is Luke Richardson, who had a marvelous year of development as head coach of the AHL Binghamton Senators. He's got everyone's respect. But a couple of execs said he's not yet ready, having run his own bench for exactly one season. That's one more than Messier. If decides to pursue the job, it's a tough decision for Sather and the Rangers.
15. Newly hired head coach Patrick Roy on his talks with the Colorado Avalanche: "Joe Sakic called and asked, 'Are you interested? We're going to do things different.' I told him, 'Let's go and play golf.' We spent a day on the golf course and then after finished the conversation ... I don't think we kept score. It was relaxed, fun." How long did he think about it? "Not very long to be honest with you. When you sit down and analyze the good side, the bad side, I came to the same answers. It's the right time. I'm 47 years old. I have a lot of energy, very passionate. If I wait any longer, it might not happen again."
16. When the official announcement came with the vice-president of hockey operations" title, there was a theory the Avalanche did that to pay him extra without throwing NHL coaching salaries completely out of whack. It is believed the highest-paid coaches make about $2 million per year. While that may be true to some degree, we know now Roy will be heavily involved in player movement and also accepted a non-guaranteed contract.
17. When told no one else would accept such a thing, Roy said: "I'm not afraid."
18. You learn something new every day: each team must submit a name or a list of names who can sign a binding contract on behalf of the organization. It can be anywhere from one to three people; usually the head of the hockey department and an assistant or two. So how is it going to work in Colorado? "You have to give a name to the NHL to say who is making trades and that's going to be me," Roy explained. "But Joe has the final say on hockey. I will propose things for Joe, he will make the final decision."
19. So ... about the first overall pick? "To pass below (No. 3 overall) will take a heck of an offer, something we are going to say ... no choice but to take it," Roy said. Does he know who the Avalanche will take first overall if they keep the top spot? "As of today, no." That was June 1.
20. Roy added the Avalanche have already reached out to set up talks for a Matt Duchene extension. He also said whatever happened in the past with Ryan O'Reilly is just that, in the past. It sounds like he's done a lot of research into O'Reilly.
21. A few other moves to look out for. Keep an eye on Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon. Like Roy in Denver, it would take an enormous offer to get the Panthers to move down from second overall. But will Tallon try to get another very high selection? A couple of teams say he'll give it a shot. One exec said he'd heard Florida and Tampa Bay were talking about an Erik Gudbranson for third-overall-pick deal. But the person I mentioned it to might still be laughing three days later. "Nothing to it," was the reply.
22. Phoenix will be on the prowl for offence. And hide your restricted free-agent defencemen from the Philadelphia Flyers.
23. I wouldn't be surprised if Guillaume Latendresse plays in Europe next season. There is apparently some interest from Switzerland.
24. What was "the clinic" Pittsburgh gave Ottawa? "For me, it was the focus and the determination they played with," said Senators head coach Paul MacLean. "They never took their foot off the pedal one time to let us play our game. The skill and precision with which they played ... we couldn't get any traction against it."
25. The Senators are growing into a good spot. Another exec said one of their biggest challenges will be determining the true offensive ceiling of players like Jakob Silfverberg, Mika Zibanejad and Kyle Turris. MacLean agrees. "That's the internal debate that we have," he said. "How good are they going to be? None of them have scored at this level. Of the group [and he included Mark Stone, Colin Greening and Mike Hoffman], we're still trying to find out what kind of NHL player they are. We believe they will score here. But how many?"
26. Finally, MacLean said this season's revolving door of a roster will have an immediate impact at next year's training camp. "We got to see lots of players. It will be so competitive because many of them will be so much better. They played 15 or 20 games, some playoffs ... the competition for those 23 spots is going to be tough. Who is going to show they want to be here?"
27. Here's what the New York Islanders are doing with Rick DiPietro. They are letting teams know that if they are interested in taking the goalie's contract off their hands, they will try to make it worthwhile. They'll consider taking a bad contract in return, maybe even a draft pick (or picks) or prospects. Still, it won't be easy. "That will have to be one heck of an asset," said another GM. A buyout now would have DiPietro on your books until 2029.
28. Agent Bill Zito, who represents Tim Thomas, said it is "status quo" for his client, ie. no decision on a potential comeback. However, I've heard from a couple of people now that Thomas is considering it, although he's not sure if it will be in North America or Europe. He loved it overseas.
29. About two months ago, one GM made a prediction that Detroit will go to Pavel Datsyuk and say, "Pavel, one year from now, you'll be 36. You're in great shape. You can play in Russia at 38. Or 40. You'll regret it if you leave here too soon." Sounds like he was right.
30. When the NHL competition committee was formed eight years ago, it looked like a great idea. The players deserved a voice in the on-ice decision-making process. There were good ideas and smart people involved. Instead, the committee turned into a joke with two voting blocs refusing to make progress. There is a lot of new blood meeting Tuesday in Toronto. Hopefully, this idea regains its purpose.
Follow Elliotte Friedman on Twitter @FriedgeHNIC
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