Dan Bylsma has seen his fair share of tests in his short time as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but none amount to the problems he and the rest of his coaching staff have faced in the 2010-2011 NHL season, making them the most valuable assets to the team.
The biggest problem they've dealt with, of course, is the injury epidemic that has consumed the Pens' locker room since day one of the season.
However, despite the multitude of injuries, the Pens have managed to stay put as the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference, surely a feat they could cling to because of the 12-game winning streak between November and December.
Ah yes, the good ole days when fans were more concerned with placing wagers on how many points Sidney Crosby would score in the upcoming game rather than hoping Tyler Kennedy will be the team's savior for another game.
How quickly and dramatically everything changed.
Now, the Pens' injury report is the length of a greedy child's Christmas list. The team has lost more than 230 man-games due to injury, certainly on the higher end in terms of the rest of the NHL. Most important, almost 40 percent of those man-games lost are due to injuries to Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (this is excluding Comrie's 51 missed games).
The numbers are stunning to behold, but the Pens have found a way to find success despite the lengthy gaps of injury. Since Crosby's concussion, the Pens have gone 13-8-5, a stretch that has also seen injuries to Malkin, Brooks Orpik, Chris Kunitz and Mark Letestu, key players to the Pens' roster.
Credit has been thrown at goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who has, more often than not, been the best player on the ice along with defenseman Kris Letang and forwards Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy. They have also performed above expectations since being thrust the responsibility of taking command of the ice.
However, Dan Bylsma and assistant coaches Tony Granato and Todd Reirden cannot be overlooked for their ability to keep the Pens focused during these tough times and find ways to pull every ounce of effort from their players each game.
Since the draftings of Crosby, Malkin and Staal, the Pens have been making a statement that they are an offensive team, highlighted by a system accentuating the importance of consistent offense and the quick transition from defense to offense.
After their average defense was exposed in the 2010 playoffs, GM Ray Shero focused his offseason signings on defensemen. He also promoted Todd Reirden, then head coach of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, to assistant coach.
The improvement on defense took some time, but the results were worth it, as the Pens have become one of the best defensive teams in the NHL.
Reirden, who takes charge of the defense, can be thanked for that.
The Pens are fourth in the East in goals against. This is because opposing teams have a tough enough time getting through the defense before having to face the equally solid Fleury or backup Brent Johnson.
Throughout the season, Reirden has molded a confident group of defensemen who play like smart, seasoned veterans. They're players who have a knack for disrupting play in all three zones, be it with their sticks, their speed or their bodies. Most important, not only do they understand their roles as defensemen, but also take their opportunities offensively, often yielding high rewards.
Reirden has also been lucky with the talent he has at his disposal. Letang having a record season and the cool play of veterans Orpik, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek would certainly make life easier for any coach.
Even more stunning, though, has been the success of the penalty kill, currently sitting atop the NHL with a 86.7-percent kill rate. This brings us to the tremendous work of Granato.
Granato has coached the penalty killers into maintaining an aggressive mindset while killing penalties, which explains why they're tied for second in the league in shorthanded goals. Offensive strength aside, the penalty killers, along with Fleury, have made life miserable for teams with even the strongest power play by forcing them to act quickly while keeping play along the boards as much as possible.
Until this season, the Pens were never a strong penalty killing team historically. They remained 24th in the league for the past two seasons and have never gone higher than fourth. Such a jump in numbers is staggering, especially since the Pens are the most penalized team in the NHL.
In such a situation, having a strong penalty kill will keep teams in games, and that's exactly what Granato has passed on to his penalty killers.
And then there's Bylsma.
His popularity around the NHL is no secret, especially when he received the highest votes in the category "coach you would most like to play for." The reason he won is clear looking at how the Pens have been approaching each game since being dealt the news of Crosby's concussion and Malkin's ACL/MCL tear.
Bylsma has a way of pulling the best out of each of his players when necessary. A good example is how Kennedy has upped him game amidst a very bland season that saw many fans calling for Shero to trade him away. Since the injuries, Kennedy has conjured the most goals with nine; Staal coming in second with seven.
Continuing with that notion, Bylsma has also extracted every last bit of tenacity and skill from the many AHL players who have graced his lineup. Call-ups are responsible for putting up 20 goals and 36 points.
Finding and maintaining that secondary scoring is the only way to win games after taking such a blow to the "regular" offense. It has been a shaky ride for the Pens, but they have somehow found a way to get it done without losing their place in the standings, a truly remarkable feat considering their offensive talent includes mainly third and fourth liners and minor league players.
In fact, in January, the Pens claimed a .590 win percentage since losing Crosby. Throughout February and March, this has dropped to .530 percent. But in January 2010, the Pens' win percentage was .530 and combining February and March (because of the Olympics) brought a .62 percentage.
That's not bad. Losing Crosby and Malkin, among the others, has only affected the team by a little less than .100 percent, and that could just as easily go up with how well the Pens have been playing.
Keeping above .500 percent will be key for the remainder of the season. The fact that they've done so without their stars in nothing short of impressive.
Making the playoffs is the goal, because who knows who could return from injury by the time mid-April rolls around.
Losing top-notch talents is such a frustrating blow to any team, and it's even worse when more and more injuries accumulate. It takes a strong coach to keep a defeated attitude out of the dressing room, and that's exactly what Bylsma has done.
Bylsma has been so important in keeping the team's hopes and spirits up and newcomer James Neal commented on the upbeat attitude in the dressing rooms. This atmosphere isn't possible without the help of the head coach, and it is something we have all been able to witness in the HBO series "24/7."
We have seen it in the Pens' inability to whither away in games, more often than not taking their losses into overtime, where they have piled up very important points. Their wins, on the other hand, have come from laying everything on the line and sacrificing their bodies in a way that makes you forget there's an injury problem on the team.
The way Bylsma handles the wins and losses has reflected how the Pens have handled them. Tough losses, especially in overtime, haven't hindered the Pens' spirits and they continue to approach each game as if their playoff position is at risk.
In many ways, it is.
But make no mistake, this kind of behavior cannot exist without the coaching staff leading the way, which is why Bylsma and the rest of the coaching staff have been the pioneers in the Pens' success.
Sure, we may not see it in wins all the time, but it's in their work ethic. We can feel that this team believes in success without their stars.
Should the Pens stay the course and enter the playoffs with home-ice advantage, don't be surprised to see Bylsma receive a nomination for the Jack Adams Award, given to the coach who has attributed the most to the team's success.
Maintaining focus on a team that is constantly losing its members to injury is daunting to any coach, but Bylsma and the rest of his staff have not batted an eye, nor has the team changed its approach to playing the game. The wins may not be coming easily, but Bylsma is pushing his team beyond anyone's expectations, especially when many believed that an absence of Crosby and/or Malkin meant the end of the road.
To an extent, we can see it in the team's stats.
But most important, we see it in their attitude.
With or without Crosby and Malkin, this Pens team continues to be a force in the Eastern Conference with the coaches heading the charge.
Laura Falcon is a featured columnist for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Follow her on Twitter or email her at email@example.com with any comments or questions.
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