As different as the Islanders and Penguins are, one thing they do have in common is highly regarded coaching. And the one thing the two coaches have in common is a starting point: the Islanders bench as assistants in 2005.
"I have always heard that if you're a person in authority, you should always hire people who are smarter than you,'' said Steve Stirling, who was the Islanders coach in 2005 and hired both Dan Bylsma, the current Penguins coach, and Jack Capuano, the Islanders coach, neither of whom had ever had NHL coaching jobs before.
Earlier in the series, Bylsma said: "I don't want you to go back and look at the statistics, but I was in charge of the power play. That was my first time dealing with high-end players as a coach in that type of situation and it was a big development part for me. It was a big growing point for me as a coach.''
Capuano also acknowledged before the series that he and Bylsma shared those roots. That was a solid time for him, too, under a head coach whom Capuano calls "a good man,'' and with whom he still stays in touch.
The achievements of his former assistants is a tribute to Stirling's run at Nassau Coliseum, which did not last long, but was not all that bad in retrospect. His record was 56-51-11-6 (wins-losses-ties-overtime losses) and he got the team into the playoffs in his only full season, losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Lightning in five games.
After that season, he was allowed by general manager Mike Milbury to reshape his staff.
"Early in my career, I had worked on the college level and I had a chance to hire a lot of people in different capacities,'' Stirling said by phone the other day after the Binghamton Senators, Ottawa's minor-league affiliate for whom he works as an assistant coach, were eliminated from the American Hockey League playoffs.
"I remember the interview with Dan down in Raleigh, at the draft. You didn't have to be a genius to figure out what a bright, articulate, good hockey mind he was. He had played the game on the highest level. He wasn't a star, but sometimes those are the best coaches because they know how hard it is,'' Stirling said.
So Bylsma was hired (following Brad Shaw) to be an analytical Xs and Os coach.
Not long after that, Milbury mentioned that Stirling ought to check out a young man who was a successful coach and general manager in the ECHL. The Islanders coach went south to interview Capuano and needed very little time to be sold.
"He was like me, more practical. He knew the Xs and Os, but I liked the fact he had a good sense of humor and good way about him,'' Stirling said. "Just spending the day with him and his family, it was obvious that he was going to be a coach of the future.''
Stirling put Bylsma in charge of the power play because the former hard-nosed player never was a power-play specialist himself. Stirling figured Bylsma could add the expertise of someone who spent years trying to stop a power play. In the first three games of this series, his Penguins were 6-for-13 on the power play. Bylsma already has won a Stanley Cup as Penguins coach.
Capuano, originally assigned to watch games from the press box in 2005, was allowed to spend games behind the bench because Stirling thought he would learn more there. From behind that very bench this season, he did one of the best coaching jobs in the NHL.
"I can't take any credit for it. I think they both developed their own niche,'' said Stirling, who is proudly watching this series. "If I passed on the odd thing here or there, so be it.''
It is not a bad legacy to have for a hockey lifer. "Mike and Charles [Wang] gave me my opportunity to coach at the highest level,'' Stirling said. "And I will be forever grateful.''