- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2009

A week ago, the struggling Pittsburgh Penguins cast off a conservative, defensive-minded coach for a guy with a more aggressive philosophy and no experience as an NHL head coach.

For Washington Capitals fans, that story line should seem awfully familiar.

“Yep, a lot of it. And it just happened in Ottawa, too - the same thing,” Caps forward Brooks Laich said.

At the start of the 2007-08 season, the Caps were off to a bumbling start when Bruce Boudreau was summoned from Hershey of the American Hockey League. And despite having no previous coaching experience at the NHL level, he led Washington to a Southeast Division title and postseason berth, earning coach of the year honors for his work.

The Penguins are less than nine months removed from a magical run of their own, falling two wins shy of capturing the Stanley Cup. Since then, there has been turmoil. Key players left via free agency. The team’s top two defensemen were lost for months before the season began.

Instead of hobnobbing among the NHL’s elite as a burgeoning dynasty, the Penguins are fighting for their postseason lives. An embarrassing 6-2 loss to Toronto was the final game for coach Michel Therrien; he was replaced by Dan Bylsma, a 38-year-old former player who had coached Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Bylsma spent one year as an assistant coach for the New York Islanders, but this was his first season as a head coach at any level. His resume, while not nearly as long as Boudreau’s, is similar in that it is atypical for an NHL bench boss.

“If you’re a good coach, I guess you’re a good coach,” Caps forward Boyd Gordon said. “If they’ve been around for a long time and played on winning teams, they know what they are talking about. I think whatever level it is, sometimes it can translate and sometimes it can’t. I think with [Boudreau] being as successful as he was, it probably gave more guys opportunities that don’t have any [NHL] experience.”

For the past few years, the Caps have been a step behind their rivals to the northwest. Sidney Crosby and the Penguins made the playoffs two years ago while Alex Ovechkin and the Caps finished in last place in the Southeast.

Last season, the Penguins went to the Stanley Cup Finals while the Caps went through their first playoff experience - a first-round loss, just like Pittsburgh’s the year before.

Now with this move, it is almost like the Penguins are chasing the mystique Washington has developed with Boudreau. And the Penguins eschewed the traditional tactic of hiring someone with NHL head coaching experience, just like the Caps did.

“In the case of Dan Bylsma, he has all the characteristics to be a successful coach in the NHL,” Penguins assistant general manager Chuck Fletcher said. “He’s getting his opportunity now, but it was only a matter of time because he has all the characteristics and qualities you want to see in a coach. I’m sure Florida feels the same way about Pete DeBoer, Washington feels the same way about Bruce Boudreau and San Jose feels the same way about Todd McLellan.

“I don’t know if it’s a trend as much as these are guys that are talented people that waited for their opportunity and found it.”

Added Boudreau: “It has been pretty crazy. Even I have to admit the [NHL] is full of coaches that I’ve coached against very recently [in the AHL].”

The recent head-to-head results in this series have also shown a dramatic shift in the rivalry. Before Boudreau was put in charge, Ovechkin’s Caps were 1-7-1 against Crosby’s Penguins. Since Boudreau replaced Glen Hanlon, Washington is 3-1-1 - and the regulation loss came when Nicklas Backstrom accidentally shot the puck in his own net in the final minute.

Enter Bylsma, who wants to mold the Penguins in a more aggressive, offensive-minded style.

“Each coach has a style, but you need to bring an energy to the game,” he said. “You have to set the foundation for the players to feel that passion and energy. I know that’s what I’m trying to do. I know Bruce did a great job with that last year in Washington.”

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