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Coach Gainey leaves his mark

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens
Fifteen years later, Gainey's incredible run with the Minnesota North Stars lives on

Gainey's first season as an NHL coach in 1991 saw him lead the underdog North Stars all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.

MONTREAL - Expect the unexpected. That's been the trend so far during the 2006 Playoffs. Even though the Hurricanes managed to wiggle off the hook against the Canadiens in the first round, few hockey minds know more about what it takes to pull the rug out from under a favored team than Bob Gainey.

For the first time since the NHL moved to a conference-by-conference seeding format in 1993-94, each of the Western Conference's top four seeds bit the dust in the opening round this year. One by one, the Red Wings, Stars, Flames and Predators crashed and burned against pesky, lower-ranked teams who refused to let the regular season standings spoil their postseason party.

Had the Canadiens managed to join that list by overcoming the loss of Saku Koivu to oust second-ranked Carolina, it wouldn't have been the first time Gainey orchestrated a playoff upset from behind an NHL bench.

Gainey's return to the coaching ranks this season may have come 15 years after his debut with Minnesota in 1991, but the unexpected Stanley Cup final run by his North Stars that spring remains one of the most extraordinary feats in NHL playoff history.

In addition to being the last team with a sub-.500 record to reach the Stanley Cup Finals, the North Stars' upsets of Chicago and St. Louis in 1991 still rank second and third all-time among the largest regular-season point gaps to ever be overcome in the playoffs.

Giant Killers
Bob Gainey's North Stars overcame two of the biggest regular-season point deficits in NHL history during the 1991 playoffs.
  Series winner Upset victim Point diff. Winning coach
1981-82 Los Angeles (63) Edmonton (111) 48 Don Perry
1990-91 Minnesota (68) Chicago (106) 38 Bob Gainey
1990-91 Minnesota (68) St. Louis (105) 37 Bob Gainey
1950-51 Montreal (65) Detroit (101) 36 Dick Irvin
1980-81 NY Rangers (74) St. Louis (107) 33 Craig Patrick

When Gainey took over as general manager/head coach of the North Stars just prior to the 1990-91 season, the state of Minnesota was hardly planning a Stanley Cup parade anytime soon. Gainey's crew, after all, finished a distant fourth in the Norris Division with 68 points, a full 38 points behind their first round opponent, the Chicago Blackhawks.

"We were hoping for the best, but we knew that we were huge underdogs coming into that series with the Blackhawks," admitted Bobby Smith, who played for Gainey in Minnesota after winning a Stanley Cup alongside him with the Canadiens in 1986.

With the chips stacked against them, the North Stars managed to win Game 1 in Chicago before returning to Minnesota with the all-important split. They then carried that momentum into Game 3 until disaster struck.

"We felt really good returning home with the series tied 1-1, so good that we even led 5-2 in Game 3," recalled Smith. "Unfortunately, the Blackhawks came all the way back and to beat us, 7-5."

On the heels of that devastating loss, Smith and his teammates were in no hurry to arrive at the rink for practice the next morning.

"All of us were understandably dreading practice, expecting to be chewed out by Bob, but wouldn't you know it, he did the exact opposite," recalled Smith. "He walked into the dressing room that morning and started telling us how well we had played in the series up to that point and how good a team we were.

"None of us could believe it," added Smith. "At that exact moment our team changed. Things were never the same after that day. We went out and won the next three games and outscored the Blackhawks 12-2 to close out the series."

Smith still marvels at the impact Gainey's unique coaching style had on the North Stars that year.

"It was truly the single greatest piece of coaching I've experienced in my 15 years in the NHL," admitted Smith, who is now the majority owner and governor of the QMJHL's Halifax Mooseheads. "It was the one time where I could honestly say that a coaching decision won us a game and really made all the difference."

Gainey and Smith shared a Stanley Cup in 1986 as teammates in Montreal before almost repeating the feat in Minnesota only five years later.

After upending the NHL-leading Blackhawks, the Stars did the same to Brett Hull and the St. Louis Blues in the next round. Despite finishing 37 points ahead in the standings, the Blues were bounced by Minnesota in six games. With the defending Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers awaiting them in the conference final, Minnesota's Cinderella playoff run appeared to be in jeopardy, but Gainey and his surging North Stars needed only five games to send the Oilers packing.

Not even a showdown with Mario Lemieux and the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Finals was enough to intimidate the North Stars, as they jumped out to a 2-1 series lead. But Super Mario lived up to his name in the end, by leading Pittsburgh to three straight wins to earn their first of two consecutive Stanley Cups.

Although the North Stars came up just short in their quest for hockey's Holy Grail, Smith can still hardly believe how close he and Gainey came to bringing the Cup to Minnesota.

"The amazing thing is, we won the first game of every series that year," said Smith. "That's preparation, that's coaching, that's Bob Gainey."

When the Canadiens introduced Gainey as their new vice-president and general manager in the summer of 2003, it was music to the ears of his former teammate.

"The big surprise to me wasn't that Bob turned to coaching after his playing days were over, it's that it took him so long to wind up back in Montreal," said Smith. "Seeing Bob enjoy the success he did with Minnesota and then in Dallas where he won the Stanley Cup was great, but it never really felt right to me.

"Bob belongs with the Canadiens. He always has and I've been telling him that for years."

Manny Almela is a writer for

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