Dan Bylsma comes across as an ordinary guy, so it wasn’t surprising to hear he was among the people during the 2010 Olympics. He was in a crowded restaurant, Primanti Bros., on the North Side of Pittsburgh, huddled around the television for the epic gold-medal game between the United States and Canada.
“I watched the overtime in a chair, a folding chair in the corner of that bar,” Bylsma said before the Penguins’ 5-1 victory over the Sabres in First Niagara Center. “I was sitting in the corner. It was a packed house. When Sid got the puck on the other side of the dot, I stood up and walked back to my table.”
Of course he did.
Bylsma knew the outcome before the puck left Sidney Crosby’s stick. He had watched Crosby up close for a year and won a Stanley Cup with him the previous season. Ryan Miller was criticized for giving up a soft winner in OT after getting caught with his stick out of position.
I’ll go to my grave saying it wasn’t a bad goal when you consider the source. Crosby was one of the few players in the world who had the quick and accurate release needed to beat Miller in that situation. He made a very good play look easy, and a very good goaltender look silly, on a world stage.
Crosby made the Sabres look silly Wednesday when he split Mike Weber and Brian Flynn in the second period and roofed a wrist shot into the top corner. Miller must have nightmares about Crosby, who has abused the Sabres with a point in each of his 14 career games in Buffalo and 17 straight overall. Many have come with Miller in net.
None was more memorable than the goal in Vancouver.
Bylsma had a unique perspective. He was an American who hailed from Michigan, Miller’s home state, and was Crosby’s boss. Rather than sympathize with Miller or cheer for Crosby, he examined the Olympics through the long lens of a coach. He imagined what decisions he would have made if he ran the show.
“You watch a game in the Olympics, and you have to make adjustments on the fly,” Bylsma said. “I asked myself those questions. Was it preparation for eventually? That’s the way I was treating it. I did think about it. I did dream about it. I did prepare for it. I didn’t know if I would ever get the opportunity.”
Four years later, it’s here.
Bylsma will be opposite Crosby and alongside Miller when he coaches the U.S. team in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. Bylsma has proved to be a very good NHL coach. He was a gritty fourth-line winger over nine seasons, one who stayed in the league because he played with energy and intelligence.
His first major decision with Team USA will be determining his top goaltender. Good luck.
Miller was the best player in Vancouver. He carried the Americans to the final game, became the name and face of USA Hockey and won the Vezina Trophy. Jonathan Quick emerged two years later when he took home the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP after leading the Kings to the Stanley Cup.
Some wondered if there was a changing of the guard among U.S. goalies, and many expected the younger Quick to take over for Miller.
Bylsma was trying to not tip his hand Wednesday. Perhaps I read him wrong, or maybe he still hadn’t decided, but it sounded like he was leaning toward Miller. Bylsma could give each a turn in the first two matchups and see what happens. We’ll know more after the second game, against host Russia.
“I’ve been asked a lot of different ways, and I was asked a little differently in L.A.,” Bylsma said with a laugh. “There’s no question that Ryan Miller, by all accounts, was the best player maybe in the tournament in Vancouver. He backstopped the U.S. team to a gold-medal game. He was the biggest reason for that.
“Heck, I’m a Miller family fan. I grew up in Michigan. It’s not just Ryan’s face or name in USA or American hockey. Ryan certainly has been that. He’s had more than one USA mask on his face, and he certainly was that in 2010.”
What to do? Take Ted Nolan’s advice, and flip a coin.
It’s hard to make heads or tails of the situation. I’m not sure about Quick, but I know Miller. Some players are motivated by money, others by respect. Miller, in a season he would otherwise rather forget, has been motivated by the Olympics. He’s been gearing up for them all year, which is one reason he maintained his sanity.
Bylsma said Miller’s performance Wednesday against the Penguins would have no bearing on his decision. Miller has been terrific on a poor team. He fell to 14-22-3 this season even though he was tied for sixth in save percentage (.925) among goalies who had played at least 20 games this season.
Save percentage is the most telling statistic on a bad team. Quick had a 15-13-2 record and a .907 save percentage in 31 games. He has lost four straight and was pulled after giving up three goals on seven shots last week against Pittsburgh. Miller has allowed 10 goals on 61 shots in his past two games.
Bylsma doesn’t know how either will respond in Sochi any more than someone sitting at the bar. He’ll follow his instincts knowing people will be watching on television, just like he was four years ago when Crosby fulfilled a dream. Bylsma’s job in Sochi is figuring out a way to turn the tables.
“We all have dreams,” Bylsma said. “My earliest memory was 1980, when Eric Heiden was speedskating around the track and the U.S. team won the gold medal. I wanted to win a goal medal way before I wanted to win a Stanley Cup. How did a kid from Grand Haven, Mich., get this opportunity? I don’t know.
“It’s been one of my goals for seven years. I’ve worked for this opportunity. And now I have it. It’s my biggest honor and my biggest responsibility of my career.”