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As a coach Badger Bob was as different from Bowman in style as one could imagine—garrulous, cheerful, an incessant communicator, nonconfrontational, paternal. But they shared a deep mutual respect and had much in common. (Johnson, too, had a mentally handicapped child who lived away from home.) After watching Lemieux get shadowed one game, Bowman made a suggestion to Johnson: Tell Mario to pick up an opposing player on the ice when he's being shadowed, so he'll have two guys on him. It was a tactic Bowman sometimes had used with Lafleur. Johnson liked the idea but asked Bowman to present it to Mario himself. "He made me feel I was part of the coaching staff, and I wasn't," Bowman says.
The Penguins were a relaxed outfit under Johnson and led by the unstoppable Lemieux went on to win the 1991 Stanley Cup. That summer the hockey world was stunned when Johnson was stricken with brain cancer. Patrick appointed Bowman, who had traveled with the team throughout the playoffs, the interim coach. "It wasn't like Craig said, 'Come in and coach for the year,' " Bowman recalls. "It was, 'Keep the job until Bob comes back.' We hung on to the hope that a miracle would happen. But a month into the season, we knew he wasn't coming back."
Johnson died in November '91, and Patrick, believing the team had gone through enough changes, asked Bowman to finish the year. The Penguins didn't play as soundly on defense as he liked, but Bowman was reluctant to tamper too much with a style that had won them the Cup. There was also the matter of changing his temperament. "I was aware that if I coached the way I did in the past," Bowman says, "it wouldn't have brought the same results. I knew I had to be different. If you're critical of a player today, especially openly, it's perceived as being negative. Bob Johnson was so positive. You have to stroke them more."
It wasn't an easy thing to radically alter a coaching style that had made him so successful. And the transition didn't happen overnight. "He was such a hard-line coach in the past," says Barrasso, who ironically now tends goal for the Penguins, "and we were such a relaxed team, that there was a period of adjustment. It was February or March until he was comfortable."
Bowman chose not to run the Penguins' practices, delegating that responsibility to Johnson's—now his—assistants, Barry Smith and Rick Kehoe. He kept a wary distance from the team, and the team muddled along with a 39-32-9 regular-season record. "Scotty, especially at first, was not as available as Badger," says Lemieux. "He's changed a lot since then. He's become a little closer to the players. With the type of team we have, it's important for the coach to be close."
The turning point may have come in the opening round of last year's playoffs, after the Penguins fell behind the Washington Capitals three games to one. Pittsburgh had been unable to control the Capitals' offense, particularly the role Washington's defensemen played in the offense. Lemieux, of all people, came up with a defensive plan. "He came to me the morning of the fifth game and said, 'Why don't we surprise them and play the game close to the vest. Tight, tight, tight,' " Bowman recalls. "I'd never pushed a lot of defensive hockey on this team, but since it was Mario who suggested it...."
They cooked up a forechecking system called the 1-4 delay, in which the Penguins didn't chase the puck in the offensive zone but stacked the neutral zone with players and thought of the blue line as a battleground. It was remarkably similar to one of the forechecking systems Blake had drawn up for Bowman 30 years earlier, when he was coaching the Junior Canadiens. At the Penguins' morning meeting, it was introduced to the rest of the team. Kehoe started to explain it, when Bowman interrupted.
"Fellas, this idea came from Mario," he said. Then he asked Lemieux to explain the 1-4 delay. "Go ahead, Mario."
Lemieux, embarrassed, said no, thank you, that Kehoe was doing just fine. "The team laughed," Bowman remembers. "They got a big kick out of that." He also remembered what Irvin had said so many years before: If you could get your team to laugh before a big game, it gave you an edge. The Penguins, of course, swept the next three games to eliminate the Caps. They then defeated the Rangers, who had been the NHL's top team in the regular season; then the Boston Bruins; and then the Blackhawks, reeling off 11 straight playoff wins, a record, en route to their second—and Bowman's sixth—Stanley Cup. Says Bowman, "As great as our teams were in Montreal, we never won 11 straight. We got on a roll and never looked back."
Nor have the Penguins looked back this season. It is a trademark of Bowman's teams—never look back, never be satisfied. If tonight's game is important enough to play, it's important enough to win. "Scotty's underlying persona hasn't changed," says Barrasso. "He still wants to be the best coach in the game. He's still the same in the locker room and the best bench coach ever. It's almost unthinkable that he would have the wrong players on the ice at the wrong time. What has changed tremendously is his mental approach to players. In the past you could walk right by him and it was like you weren't there. It was impossible to show any friendliness toward him. Now he might speak to you about your family or the weather. He's a more open person."