FROM PITTSBURGH — If there is a lesson to be learned about Dan Bylsma it's that the Pittsburgh Penguins' coach sees every experience as a lesson, whether on-the-fly strategic decisions that led his team to the Stanley Cup finals or a profound personal tragedy that shook him to his core.
Appointed coach of a burned-out and foundering team Feb. 16 after only a few months' minor-league coaching experience, Bylsma allowed the Penguins to have fun again and led them on an 18-3-4 surge that carried them to the No. 4 seeding in the East. They eliminated Philadelphia in six games, rallied from a 2-0 deficit to defeat Washington in seven and swept Carolina to earn a berth in the finals against the Detroit Red Wings.
The Penguins face another 2-0 deficit as the finals shift to Mellon Arena today, and it's infinitely more daunting than their previous shortfall. It's the finals. It's the defending champion Red Wings who hold the upper hand after negating much of the Penguins' speed and checking so tightly that the Penguins can't fully use their astounding skills.
But Bylsma has taken every step of his life and career as an opportunity to learn and become something more than he thought he could be. Whatever happens today, this will be another lesson he will pull out later in the series or when the Penguins return to this stage again, and they will be back.
"He's a smart coach to analyze the game. It doesn't matter that he was a fourth-line grinder. He understands the game very well," Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said.
"He's fresh and in the new wave of NHL coaches. He brings a lot of confidence to everyone. He will sit down with you and try to make you better."
Bylsma, 38, reached the NHL on his perseverance and capacity for grunt work. With the Kings for parts of five seasons and the Ducks for four seasons he was a sturdy, unspectacular forward who peaked at eight goals and 17 points in 2001-02.
If he was best known publicly for skating in on a breakaway with Wayne Gretzky during his fourth NHL game and falling after the game's greatest player passed him the puck, those who knew him saw much more to him than that.
He blocked shots, killed penalties and never said no to a request to promote the game he began playing when he tagged along behind his three older brothers in his hometown of Grand Haven, Mich. He became an alternate captain with the Ducks, who took the unusual measure of extending his contract for two seasons plus an option in the middle of the 2001-02 season because of his leadership and locker-room presence.
When injuries kept him out of the lineup in 2002-03 he took it upon himself to greet his teammates as they entered the locker room after each game, shouting "Duckies, duckies, duckies!" to rev them up.
"My best memories as a player were that '03 run," he said. "There's still some Duck paraphernalia in my house."
His coach then was Mike Babcock, now the Red Wings' coach and still a friend. "He was a guy who was a heart-and-soul guy, a good teammate, a positive person. And he made his teammates better," Babcock said.
During that season Bylsma took an extended turn as the team's radio analyst and seemed born for the job.
"It took him about one period to adjust," said Steve Carroll, the Ducks' play-by-play announcer.
"He was very, very good. There were so many things he said during the broadcast that I was able to learn a lot about the game. He had an eloquent way of articulating his point."
Bylsma's ability to communicate his knowledge has been a tremendous asset throughout his life.
With his father, Jay, he wrote several books intended to advise parents about the life lessons that youth sports should provide. In the first book, "So Your Son Wants to Play in the NHL," he discussed the 1998 stillborn birth of his and wife Mary Beth's first child, touching hearts with his poignant honesty.
Bylsma and his wife later had a son, Bryan, but he has never forgotten the importance of gaining strength and wisdom at every turn.
It might not seem there's much for him to take from losing the first two finals games by 3-1 scores. The Red Wings, so deep and well-schooled defensively, have held Sidney Crosby scoreless and on Sunday frustrated Evgeni Malkin to the point where he started a fight and was nearly suspended.
But Bylsma said Monday he's encouraged by his players' resilience under duress. He thinks they're saying and doing the right things and from that good things will result, as they did against Washington.
"You've got to keep at it, keep on the game plan, keep wearing them down," he said.
"You have to initiate and invest with how you play the game and where you play it, and deal with the emotions and then get back to the task at hand, which is Game 3 for us and coming back to our building and holding serve here. . . . To be distracted by anything else would take away from what we need to do."
Knowing what needs to be done and doing it don't always follow. Bylsma is learning that, too, and he will be the better for it.