The story of the 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins probably sounds awfully familiar to Capitals fans: a talented yet underachieving team, a coach who had won accolades in the past but seemed out of answers, a replacement coach from the AHL affiliate, and a resurgence to get the team into the playoffs. In case of the Capitals it was, of course, Bruce Boudreau, who would go on to take the Jack Adams award last season. For the Penguins it's been Dan Bylsma, a former NHL winger who became the youngest head coach in the NHL when he was promoted from his positions in Wilkes-Barre.
In many ways analogous to the transfer from Glen Hanlon to Boudreau, Bylsma's simplest broadest change was to encourage his players to take advantage of their significant natural skill and play an aggressive, up-tempo style, a contrast to Michel Therrien's stricter emphasis on system. The result? The team started scoring more goals, allowing fewer, and winning a heck of a lot more often.
Much like last year's Capitals, this year's Penguins have become, for all intents and purposes, a different team under their new head coach. Thus, while the Penguins' regular season numbers aren't all the impressive, they're misleading. Here's how the team has performed under each of its respective coaches this season:
|Under Therrien||Under Bylsma||Δ||Δ%|
|Penalty Kill Pct.||80.5||87.4||6.9||8.6|
Of course, it would be a mistake to give all the credit for the turnaround the Bylsma, who was only a part of the team's late season overhaul: Bylsma was named Pittsburgh's interm coach on February 15th, one day after Sergei Gonchar made his long-awaited return to the Penguins lineup, and the additions of wingers Chris Kunitz (February 27th) and Bill Guerin (March 4th) have helped the team as well. How much of an impact each of the four made individually is up for debate, although it doesn't really matter. In any case, there's a world of difference between the Penguins Bylsma took over and the Penguins the Capitals will face on Saturday, a difference that was somewhat on display on March 8th, the only game between the Bylsma/Gonchar/Kunitz/Guerin-led Penguins and the Capitals this season, and the only 2008-09 game between the two teams the Capitals did not win in regulation.
Come Saturday, the team the Caps meet on the ice is going to be a whole lot better than the team it's meeting on paper.