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(Gene J. Puskar)
(Gene J. Puskar)

Sean Gordon

Time to recognize Bylsma Add to ...

With apologies to Bill Maher, let us define a few New Rules this morning.

Rule the first: in any discussion about pro hockey’s cleverest men, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma must be among the first three names mentioned.

Not only because he has managed to keep his team among the conference elite despite a raft of injuries that would make many grown men cry and consign lesser teams to a season of misery and bottom feeding - like these guys, for example.

No, Bylsma’s true genius is in getting the most out of marginal players (Dustin Jeffrey? Joe Vitale?) and creating an environment that has enabled a couple of the best young players in the game to mature and flourish.

Evgeni Malkin, who people tend to forget is only 25 years old, has blossomed into the Crosby-less NHL’s best player this season, and Bylsma deserves some of the credit.

Look no further than Tuesday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens, a cagily-played affair that saw centre Tomas Plekanec and defensive pair Josh Gorges and P.K. Subban in Malkin’s socks for much of the game.

Byslma had said prior to the game that Malkin and his linemates have gotten used to special treatment from the opposition, and hinted that he’d try and exploit situational mismatches to get them some more room out there.

So it was seven minutes into the third period, when Bylsma called his second line - who had been matched up with Gorges, Subban and the Habs’ top line - back to the bench and threw Malkin’s group out.

The Habs managed to get Plekanec and his linemates on the ice, but by then Subban and Gorges had gone for a breather and the defensive pairing was Hal Gill (who doesn’t do well against speed) and Yannick Weber (who is just flat out brutal in his own end).

Presto, James Neal scored the 2-2 equalizer after Malkin’s feed from behind the net was deflected into his path by Plekanec.

Malkin then scored a swanky spinarama goal in the shootout, which the Pens would eventually lose (Plekanec scored the decisive goal, and appears to be emerging at last from his season-long lethargy).

But without Bylsma’s quick thinking, it’s an open question whether they get that overtime point, which allowed Pittsburgh to keep pace with New Jersey, who have one less regulation win (this could matter in deciding the final seedings).

Good teams get something out of games they have no right to win - and after Lars Eller's no-look goal, it looked like the hockey gods were going to side with the Habs.

Another key factor in the Pens’ recent run of success: the presence of 24-year-old defenceman Kristopher Letang, who gives them another dimension on the back end, and who has also bloomed under Bylsma’s tutelage.

The Pens are 6-2-1 since Letang returned to the lineup, and have put together a 9-2-1 string since Jan. 11.

Speaking of Letang, aren’t the criticisms leveled at him when he was younger (cocky, mouthy, selfish, mistake-prone) pretty much exactly the same ones leveled at another 22-year-old defenceman we know?

A couple of years later, and Letang is in the conversation for the Norris trophy, or he would be had a concussion not interrupted his season.

Disco Dan knows what he's doing, gang, and has single-handedly removed the injury bug as an excuse for under-performing in the NHL. We're big fans of the job he's done.

Second rule: math sucks, especially when it points a bony finger of blame.

Per Deadspin.com, the New England Patriots would have had an exponentially larger chance of winning the Super Bowl had Wes Welker managed to pull down an awkward, but catchable, Tom Brady pass with four minutes left in the game and the Pats leading.

Maybe that’s why a pawn shop owner - who presumably lost a tidy bundle on a friendly Super Bowl wager - decided to drop off a few Butterfinger candy bars in Boston’s Copley Square as an homage to Welker.

Third rule: Major League Baseball teams will stoop to strange and sometimes borderline creepy things when left to their own devices, as they are in winter.

Sure, the Texas Rangers have a major financial investment in slugger Josh Hamilton, a recovering addict who suffered a well-publicized relapse in a Dallas bar on Feb. 2.

But bringing in a former University of Alabama team chaplain and onetime Kansas City Royals fitness coach to keep him on the straight and narrow?

Put us down as doubters - if you need to hire someone to follow a player around because of doubts over his ability to keep it on the rails, it’s probably not going to end well (see Jones, Pacman).

Yes, the team used to employ Jerry Narron, a longtime baseball man who has known Hamilton since he was a kid, as his “accountability partner.”

And yes, Hamilton’s relapse happened after Narron took a new job as the Milwaukee Brewers’ hitting coach.

But it occurs that what Hamilton needs is serious, expert help - a counselor, not a minder.

In the meantime, it has emerged the World Series runners-up have put negotiations toward a contract extension for Hamilton on hold.

Nice.

Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

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