PITTSBURGH – The late-night flight from Philadelphia landed and the Buffalo Sabres’ bus rolled toward downtown and the famous three rivers here early Wednesday morning. Dan Bylsma knows the trip well, from the far-off airport down the Parkway to Green Tree Hill until you enter the Fort Pitt Tunnel.
When you emerge, the city where Bylsma built his career explodes into view with a picturesque flood of light shining upon the city’s skyscrapers and network of bridges. But on this night, no such luck.
“I was disappointed the tunnel was blocked last night,” a smiling Bylsma said here Wednesday afternoon. “Because they were doing construction, we had to go around.”
Bylsma is hoping that’s not any sort of omen for this trip. For the first time since he was fired as Pittsbugh Penguins coach in 2014, Bylsma is back in town with a team to call his own. The Sabres got a big overtime win Tuesday in Philly and go for a 2-0 road trip Thursday night in Consol Energy Center, but the game is almost a sidelight to the focus on Bylsma’s return.
The buildup began at practice Wednesday. Bylsma gave extra greetings to some Pittsburgh reporters and had a welcome-back chat with Jennifer Bullano, the Penguins’ senior director of communications. Bullano was one of Bylsma’s closest front-office confidantes when he was here and he even appeared with her in March, 2014 on the TLC reality show “Say Yes to the Dress,” to do shopping in New York during a road trip for her impending wedding.
“I was a part of this organization for eight years and here for 5½ of them and there’s a lot of familiarity walking into this building,” Bylsma said. “I certainly felt that today.”
But what’s it going to be like to coach a game in front of a full house against the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin?
“There will be emotions. I’m not going to be moved to tears but it’s going to be emotional,” Bylsma said. “Even right now, I look at the empty seats and I’m gonna know 50 faces in the stands tomorrow where they sit. I know where my family sat when they were here. There’s certainly going to be emotions.”
Bylsma left town as the winningest coach in Penguins history at 252-117-32 and became the fastest to 250 wins of any coach in NHL history. All four of his full seasons resulted in 100-plus points and there were back-to-back division titles in 2013 and 2014.
But since coming to Buffalo in May, Bylsma has often spoken about the weight of expectations here after taking over with 25 games left in the 2008-09 season and going on to win the Stanley Cup that spring. There was nowhere to go but down and the Penguins did just that. After ’09, the only other time they even reached the Eastern Conference final was when they were swept by Boston in 2013.
“It’s a lot harder to do than just saying ‘This team and these players should win three or four Stanley Cups,’ ” Bylsma said. “It’s a lot harder to do than that. It didn’t happen. I hate to say we came close. We put ourselves in position to win series and move on and we didn’t. … That’s my only lament about the situation. We should have and we didn’t.”
Bylsma was fired on June 6, 2014, three weeks after GM Ray Shero was let go. The Penguins had blown a 3-1 lead to the New York Rangers in the second round and Bylsma knew he was toast. He tried to put on a happy face at the time – and admitted Wednesday he was surprised he wasn’t sacked the same day as Shero – but knew what the end result would be.
“I knew after we lost to the Rangers that I wasn’t going to be back,” he said. “Whether that was four weeks later or whatever, I knew. We needed to win, we needed to win a Stanley Cup. We didn’t and regardless of what I answered in the press conference after the game against the Rangers, I knew and I’m all right with that.”
Now Bylsma gets to see how the other half lives when faced with the task of defending Crosby and Malkin. Obviously, he wasn’t going to give away any state secrets Wednesday but Bylsma certainly has some ideas on not letting Nos. 87 and 71 turn the game into a track meet like the ones he often directed here.
“It was part of our development and growth when I was here to say, ‘How do you beat the Pittsburgh Penguins?’ I have that book that we came up with then,” he said.
“They’ve got talented players and skill players. We know that’s the case. It’s hard to say you’re going to keep 87 and 71 off the board and how you’re gonna do that. Their power play can be daunting with that skill and talent. They’ve added Phil Kessel and there’s a little bit different look in some areas, but a lot of the same things apply.”
And about the concept this might be a good time for the building Sabres to catch the Penguins, when they’ve been struggling and are coming home for a back-to-back after a game Wednesday in Washington? Bylsma isn’t getting caught up in that.
“I don’t think anybody every looks at Sidney Crosby or Evegni Malkin and says, ‘Oh, we’re catching them while they’re not scoring,’” Bylsma said. “You’re always in fear of their ability to score and you always fear their ability on the power play whether they’re at 25 percent or at 0 percent for however long. They still scare you for that ability. You don’t sneak by this group without getting their best.”