PITTSBURGH - The Penguins came to a passionate defense of their coach Sunday.
Dan Bylsma, whose stock seemed to skyrocket during the first week of the Olympics before plummeting in the span of 24 hours, will come home to a group of players that has his back.
“There are a lot of experts out there who think they can coach the Penguins better than he does or could have coached the Americans better,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “Dan's pretty smart. It's a pretty good system he runs. If they didn't execute it, then, I don't know.”
Many American players resorted to taking shots at the system Bylsma implemented following Friday's 1-0 semifinal loss against Canada.
Team USA captain Zach Parise referred to the American approach as “passive.”
Additional player criticism followed Saturday's 5-0 setback to Finland in the bronze medal game.
“I think anyone who is ripping Dan is completely ridiculous,” left winger Tanner Glass said. “There is so much coaching that can be done, but there isn't much adjusting you can do in a short tournament like that.”
Bylsma, the 2011 winner of the Jack Adams Award given annually to the NHL's best coach, was criticized after the Penguins allowed 30 goals in a six-game ambushing by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the 2012 postseason.
He was voted last season by The Hockey News as the coach players would most like to play for. His teams have led the league in scoring during the 2011-12 and 2013 regular seasons and have ranked in the top 10 in goals for and against during the past two seasons. The Penguins lead the NHL in power play and rank second in penalty killing.
The Penguins entered the 2013 Eastern Conference final as a favorite against the Boston Bruins but managed only two goals while being swept.
However, many Penguins pointed out that Bylsma's overall work has been impressive. The have played only seven games this season with their projected top-six defensemen, Center Evgeni Malkin missed nearly a month, goalie Tomas Vokoun still hasn't played and right wing Pascal Dupuis was lost for the season with an injury. The Penguins are a contender for the NHL's best regular-season record.
“It's unfair if he's being criticized over there,” center Joe Vitale said. “To put a team together that quickly in a short tournament, and on a different size ice surface, has got to be so hard. Everyone knows he's a good coach.”
The Americans scored 22 goals in their first four games of a tournament marked by low-scoring games. However, Canada's Carey Price pitched a 1-0 shutout in the semifinals, and Team USA couldn't beat Finland goalie Tuukka Rask on Saturday.
That the Penguins struggled mightily with Rask in the playoffs against the Bruins last season isn't worthy of a comparison, some Penguins said.
“Two different situations,” Glass said. “I mean, they lose to Canada, 1-0. Look at the team they lost to.”
Canada never trailed in the Olympic tournament and permitted only three goals in six games.
“I don't know what system they were playing,” Niskanen said. “I wasn't in their dressing room. I don't think criticism of an NHL coach or of an Olympic coach is anything new.”
Penguins assistant coach Todd Reirden, running practices in Bylsma's absence, said he isn't worried about Bylsma's ability to bounce back.
“He put a lot of time and effort into trying to bring a medal home,” Reirden said. “But I expect him to be back to being his old self as soon as he steps foot in this locker room. His ultimate goal is building this group toward our final goal of winning a Stanley Cup.”
Notes : Penguins players not participating in the Olympics gathered at Consol Energy Center on Sunday for a 75-minute workout. … Vitale, out since sustaining a wrist injury Jan. 10 in Edmonton, skated with teammates Sunday and said he is feeling much better despite feeling “out of shape.” Vitale said he isn't sure if he will be ready to play when the Penguins' schedule resumes Thursday against Montreal, but he expects to return soon.
(Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.)