Giant Killers: Playoff Davids Slaying Regular Season Goliaths

by | Nov 22, 2022

Giant Killers: Playoff Davids Slaying Regular Season Goliaths

by | Nov 22, 2022

This article was a long time in the making. I had conceived of the idea featured in this piece in 2015 and always wanted to write an article about it but as John Lennon once sang, “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

It took a certain event in the 2021/22 Stanley Cup playoffs to revive this article idea.

In my first book Bench Bosses: the NHL’s Coaching Elite I invented the hockey term Heartbreak Coach to denote a coach with a minimum of five Stanley Cup playoff appearances without ever reaching the Stanley Cup finals.

For this article I would like to invent a new hockey term: Giant Killer.

Here’s the definition:

Giant Killer: a coach who has coached teams that defeated the President’s Trophy winner in Stanley Cup playoff competition at least twice during their NHL coaching careers.

I came up with the term because defeating the President’s Trophy winner in playoff competition is a stern test for the following reasons:

1) You are beating the team with the best regular-season record therefore any coach who has to face the President’s Trophy winner in the playoffs is taking on the very best team…on paper at least.

2) You are also beating a team with home-ice advantage throughout the entire Stanley Cup playoffs therefore you are forced to face the very best team in the NHL while also coping with not having home-ice advantage.

And yet being the Giant in Stanley Cup competition does not guarantee invincibility. Ever since the President’s Trophy was established during the 1985/86 season only eight President’s Trophy winners have won the Stanley Cup in 37 seasons of NHL competition which means that any President’s Trophy winner has only as a 22% chance of winning the Stanley Cup.

Those are very poor odds.

Interestingly, before the establishment of the President’s Trophy, the NHL team with the best regular season record had much better odds in winning the Stanley Cup. From 1917/18 to 1984/85 the team with the best regular season record won the Stanley Cup 32 out of 66 times—a 48% chance of winning the Stanley Cup

Much better odds, I should say.

However Giant Killing is still a rare form of hockey coaching that only 13 men history have accomplished the feat at least twice during their NHL coaching careers.

This article will now reveal these 13 Davids and how they came to be Giant Killers.

2-Eddie Gerard, Cecil Hart, Rudy Pilous, Punch Imlach, Fred Shero, Glen Sather, and Mike Sullivan

Eddie Gerard was the first NHL coach to become a Giant Killer when he led the Montreal Maroons to victory over the original Ottawa Senators in the 1925/26 NHL playoffs; then repeated the feat in 1927/28 when the Maroons beat the Montreal Canadiens in the semifinal round.

Cecil Hart was next when he led the Habs to consecutive Giant Kills over the Boston Bruins during the 1929/30 and the 1930/31 seasons. The former Giant Kill took place during the Stanley Cup finals while the latter Giant Kill took place during the semifinal round.

Rudy Pilous led the Chicago Blackhawks to consecutive Giant Kills over the Montreal Canadiens in 1960/61 and 1961/62 with both wins taking place during the semifinal rounds.

Punch Imlach slew his first Goliath in 1963/64 when the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Habs in the semifinal round and Punch buried his second Goliath when the Leafs slew the Chicago Blackhawks during the semifinal round of the 1966/67 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Fred Shero got his first Giant Kill during the 1973/74 Stanley Cup finals when the Philadelphia Flyers beat the Boston Bruins in six (go Flyers!). Fred’s second Giant Kill took place during the 1978/79 Stanley Cup playoffs when the New York Rangers beat the New York Islanders in the semifinal round (while making Fred Shero the second coach in NHL history to achieve Giant Kills with two separate teams—the first coach to do so will be revealed later in this article).

Glen Sather got his two Giant Kills close together. The first came in 1984/85 when the Edmonton Oilers beat the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup finals. The second came in 1987/88 when the Oilers beat the President’s Trophy winning Calgary Flames in the Division Finals.
Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan did his two Giant Kills in back-to-back fashion. In 2015/16 he knocked off the Washington Capitals in the second round of the playoffs and eventually win the Stanley Cup. In 2016/17 it was déjà vu all over again when the Penguins beat the Caps in the second round again and eventually win the Stanley Cup again.

3-Dick Irvin, Al Arbour, Scotty Bowman, Darryl Sutter, and Jon Cooper

Dick Irvin was the first Giant Killer in NHL history to achieve Giant Kills with two separate teams. His first came in 1932/33 when he led the Toronto Maple Leafs to victory over the Boston Bruins in the semifinal round. Irvin scored his second Giant Kill in 1937/38 when Toronto beat the Bruins again in the semifinal round. Irvin’s third and final Giant Kill took place in 1950/51 when Montreal beat the Detroit Red Wings in the semifinal round.

Al Arbour became a Giant Killer when the Islanders beat the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1979/80 Stanley Cup finals. Arbour did it again in 1982/83 when New York beat the Boston Bruins in the Conference Finals. His third and last Giant Kill came when the Islanders beat the President’s Trophy winner (and defending Stanley Cup champion) Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1992/93 Division Finals.

Scotty Bowman’s first Giant Kill came in 1991/92 when the Penguins beat the New York Rangers in the Division Finals; the second came in 1996/97 when the Detroit Red Wings beat the Colorado Avalanche in the Conference Finals; and his last came the following season when the Red Wings beat the Dallas Stars in the Conference Finals.

Darryl Sutter is the first and only NHL coach to achieve three Giant Kills with three separate teams. His first Giant Kill came in 1999/00 when the San Jose Sharks beat the St. Louis Blues in the Conference Quarterfinals; his second came in 2003/04 when the Calgary Flames beat the Detroit Red Wings in the Conference Semifinals; and his last came in 2011/12 the Los Angeles Kings beat the Vancouver Canucks in the Conference Quarterfinals.

Jon Cooper of the Tampa Bay Lightning notched his first Giant Kill when Tampa Bay beat the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals in 2014/15. Five years later Tampa Bay beat the Boston Bruins in the second round of the 2019/20 playoffs and in 2021/22 Cooper guided the Lightning to a second round defeat of the Florida Panthers to garner his third Giant Kill.

4-Hap Day

The greatest Giant Killer in NHL history is the immortal Hap Day who led the Toronto Maple Leafs to five Stanley Cups during his illustrious coaching career. His first Giant Kill came in 1941/42 when the Leafs beat the New York Rangers in the semifinals. The second came in 1944/45 when Toronto beat the Montreal Canadiens in the semifinal round. The third came in 1946/47 when the Leafs beat the Habs again in the Stanley Cup finals. Hap Day’s fourth and last Giant Kill came in 1948/49 when the Leafs beat the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup finals.

Having bandied about the greatest Giant Killers in NHL history one wonders which coaches were the most victimized by the Giant Killers; which Giant coaches were also prey as well as predators?
Research shows that 12 NHL coaches suffered the slings and arrows of being slain by Giant Killers at least twice during their coaching careers.

The late Pete Green (who coached the Original Ottawa Senators) was slain twice in Stanley Cup playoff competition: in 1921/22 at the hands of the Toronto St. Patricks and in 1923/24 at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens.

Iron Mike Keenan was another Goliath who was slain twice when the Edmonton Oilers beat the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1984/85 Stanley Cup finals; and in 1990/91 when the President’s Trophy winning Chicago Blackhawks were upset by the Dallas Stars in the Division Semifinals.
Former Islanders head coach Barry Trotz suffered two Giant Kills when his Washington Capitals fell prey to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2015/16 and 2016/17 in the second round in both seasons.

Four men suffered Giant Kills three times during their coaching careers.

Cecil Hart suffered consecutive Giant Kills to 1927/28 and 1928/29 in the semifinal round at the hands of the Montreal Maroons and the Boston Bruins, respectively; Hart suffered his third and last Giant Kill in 1931/32 against the New York Rangers.

The immortal Tommy Ivan suffered three Giant Kills when he was coaching the Detroit Red Wings. The first came in 1948/49 against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup finals. The second came in 1950/51 against the Montreal Canadiens in the semifinal round. The last came in 1952/52 against the Boston Bruins also in the semifinal round.

Habs coaching legend Toe Blake suffered three Giant Kills during the early 1960s. The first two came in 1960/61 and 1961/62 when the Canadiens lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in the semifinal round both times. The third and last Giant Kill took place in 1963/64 against the Toronto Maple Leafs (also in the semifinal round).

Alain Vigneault was also slain thrice in Stanley Cup finals competition after winning the President’s trophy. The first two came in 2010/11 when the Vancouver Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup finals. The second was in 2011/12 when the Canucks lost in the first round against the Los Angeles Kings. The last Giant Kill took place in 2014/15 when the New York Rangers lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals.

Three men have suffered four Giant Kills during their NHL coaching tenures.

The first to suffer this fate was Boston Bruins coaching immortal Art Ross. His first loss came in the 1929/30 Stanley Cup finals when the Canadiens beat the Bruins. The second came in 1930/31 when the Habs beat the Bruins in the semifinal round. Ross suffered his third Giant Kill when the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Bruins in the semifinal round. He suffered his last Giant Kill came in 1937/38 when the Leafs beat the Bruins in the semifinal round.

Dick Irvin also suffered four Giant Kills as well. His first came in 1933/34 when the Maple Leafs lost to the Detroit Red Wings in the semifinal round. Toronto was knocked flat again when the Montreal Maroons beat the Leafs in the 1934/35 Stanley Cup finals. The third came in 1944/45 when the Montreal Canadiens lost to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the semifinal round. He was Giant Killed for the last time in 1946/47 when the Maple Leafs beat the Habs in the Stanley Cup finals.

Scotty Bowman, the greatest coach in NHL history) was not immune to being slain by Giant Killers. He, too, suffered four defeats at the hands of NHL Davids. His first death came in 1974/75 when the Montreal Canadiens lost to the Buffalo Sabres in the semifinal round. His second death came in 1992/93 when the Pittsburgh Penguins lost to the New York Islanders in the Division Finals. The third and fourth deaths came in 1994/95 and 1995/96 when the Detroit Red Wings lost to the New Jersey Devils in the Stanley Cup finals in the former year and to the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference finals in the latter year.

Bill Gadsby was a Survivor

Bill Gadsby was a Survivor

Bill Gadsby was one of the best defensemen of his era. He played for three teams and appeared in seven All-Star games during his 20-year NHL career. He was never on a Stanley Cup winner but was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1970.

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