John Paddock seemed to be an early favorite for coach of the year when he guided the defending Eastern Conference champion Ottawa Senators to 15 wins in their first 17 games.
But after a long stretch of poor play knocked them out of the Eastern Conference lead - and with just 18 regular-season games left - Paddock has been replaced by the man that helped the Senators enjoy their most successful season ever.
With general manager Bryan Murray back behind the bench, Ottawa will try to avoid another embarrassing loss when it meets the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday at the Wachovia Center.
Despite their incredible start on the heels of a Stanley Cup finals appearance last season, Paddock on Wednesday became the third coach to be fired this season, joining Bob Hartley in Atlanta and Glen Hanlon in Washington. Assistant coach Ron Low also was let go.
Murray, who recorded 100 regular-season wins with Ottawa from 2005-07, told the Senators' official Web site that firing Paddock was difficult.
"I said to John, who'd have ever thought, the way we came out of the gate, the way the team played, the way we as a group stuck together in every situation, it's shocking, really, that it comes to this," Murray said. "Disappointing, certainly, from everybody's point of view. But the bottom line in our game and in any professional sport is winning.
"With the (recent) results, I certainly felt something was amiss with the group and hopefully this will help. I told (the players) that they have to take responsibility for this. We're all professionals - you have to play hard and work hard every night and play to your ability level. That's all we ever ask and I didn't see that lately."
Ottawa (36-22-6) has won only seven of 21 games since Jan. 13, and has gone just 1-12-2 when scoring three goals or fewer in that span. Still, the Senators remain atop the Northeast Division by one point over Montreal, and trail New Jersey by two points for the conference lead. Both the Canadiens and Devils are idle Thursday.
Before the Senators can concentrate on winning, though, they need to rediscover how to score. Ottawa hasn't tallied a goal since Daniel Alfredsson's overtime marker Saturday in a 4-3 win over Pittsburgh - a span of 120 minutes, 4 seconds.
The Senators were embarrassed 5-0 on Monday by Toronto before dropping a 4-0 decision to Boston on Tuesday.
Since its struggles started in mid-January, Ottawa has totaled 55 goals for an average of 2.61 per game. Despite their recent inability to find the back of the net, the Senators still lead the NHL with 210 goals scored.
Murray, who will remain general manager, outlined what he wants to see going forward.
"Get some discipline in the play but mainly, get some emotion and effort into the game," he said. "I think we've been a very passive group in the last number of games and I think it's because of not winning. Players start to grip their sticks a little too much, and that'll be the first area to address."
Murray also said the team can return to the finals in spite of its struggles.
"I think we have a real good hockey team, I think a very comparable hockey team to last year," he said. "Like every team, you've got to get a little bit lucky (and) you've got to play very, very hard. But yeah, I think we have a real contending team here."
It's not known who will start in goal during Murray's debut, but neither Ray Emery nor Martin Gerber have played well recently. Emery is 2-3-1 with a 3.40 goals-against average in his last six starts while Gerber is 0-3-1 with a 3.27 GAA in four starts since last winning on Jan. 29.
Philadelphia (31-25-7) returns to the ice after snapping a franchise record-tying 10-game skid with a 4-3 shootout win over Buffalo on Tuesday. Former Sabre Daniel Briere scored in the sixth round to lift the Flyers to their first win since Feb. 5.
"All I was thinking was, `This is perfect. I can't be in a better position," said Briere, who's been booed recently in Philadelphia, blamed for the team's recent struggles after signing an eight-year, $52 million contract in the offseason. "I think we just got rewarded a little bit tonight for the way things have been going against us lately."
Philadelphia has dropped six in a row at home since a 3-0 win over defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim on Feb. 2, and is 13-12-6 on the season at the Wachovia Center.
Both teams are expected to have new faces in the lineup. Ottawa acquired gritty forward Martin Lapointe from Chicago prior to Tuesday's NHL trading deadline, one day after Philadelphia picked up high-scoring Vaclav Prospal from Tampa Bay.
The Flyers have taken two of three from the Senators this season, including a 6-1 win in Philadelphia on Jan. 20.