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Where will coaching carousel stop next?

The highlights: The Devils fire John MacLean. Who’s next? … HBO catches the Capitals at their worst – and best. … Chris Osgood’s(notes) 400-win argument for the Hall of Fame. … Ryan Kesler(notes) powers up in Vancouver. … And, Mike Green(notes) rides a moped?!

FIRST PERIOD

In New Jersey, the question is: Why now?

Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello waited until Thursday – two days before Christmas, when players are protected by the NHL’s holiday roster freeze – to fire coach John MacLean. The Devils languish at the bottom of the league with 20 points, tied with the woeful New York Islanders, who fired their coach earlier this season. They have lost virtually all hope of making the playoffs.

“It’s my fault for waiting so long,” Lamoriello told reporters in Newark.

Around the NHL, the question is: Who’s next?

A coaching change always has been the quick and easy move for troubled teams, but that’s even more true today. Salaries are capped, and points are awarded for overtime losses. The competition is tighter, and trades more difficult. When something has to give, the someone who has to go is probably going to be the coach.

And no matter what they say publicly, it weighs on the minds of the men in the game. Just watch the latest episode of “24/7 Penguins/Capitals: The Road to the NHL Winter Classic,” the four-part, all-access HBO series leading up to the league’s annual outdoor game on Jan. 1. Listen to Caps coach Bruce Boudreau address his players as they ride an eight-game losing streak and face a 2-0 first-period deficit against the Ottawa Senators.

“You’ve got to say, ‘It’s [bleeping] over,’ ” Boudreau said. “If you don’t say, ‘It’s [bleeping] over,’ then something bad can really [bleeping] happen. I don’t think we want the bad things to happen. Too many of us are enjoying it here, [bleeping] like it here.”

Boudreau seems safe. The Capitals have pulled out of their funk with back-to-back victories, and he has been supported publicly by his general manager. The Boston Bruins’ Claude Julien and the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Ron Wilson also have been under fire and supported publicly by their GMs. But you never know when a vote of confidence can turn into the kiss of death. Lamoriello supported MacLean publicly, too.

Other coaches on the hot seat include the Calgary Flames’ Brent Sutter, the Minnesota Wild’s Todd Richards and the Ottawa Senators’ Cory Clouston. The seat has cooled for the Buffalo Sabres’ Lindy Ruff, and the Anaheim Ducks’ Randy Carlyle not only has gotten off the hot seat, he has gotten a contract extension.

If your team is truly underachieving and you have the right replacement, an in-season coaching change can spark something special. Dan Bylsma took over the slumping Penguins in February of 2009, and they went on to win the Cup. Peter Laviolette took over the slumping Philadelphia Flyers in December of 2009, and they went to the Cup final.

But if your problems run deep – and they usually do if you’re deep in the standings – then canning the coach might not accomplish much immediately. The Islanders were 4-10-3 when they fired Scott Gordon; they have gone 3-8-3 under replacement Jack Capuano.

With the Devils, the situation falls somewhere in between. This is a team that has finished with 100 points in 12 of the past 15 full seasons, that has won three Stanley Cups since 1995. It has a roster of accomplished, veteran players. But it’s also a roster of accomplished, older players. Lamoriello has handcuffed himself with bad contracts and no-trade clauses, and his signing of Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) to a 15-year, $100 million deal has backfired spectacularly so far.

Maybe an earlier move would have made more of a difference. Maybe interim bench boss Jacques Lemaire, in his third tour with the team, can restore the old Devils identity by restoring some of the structure lost under MacLean. But he can’t make goaltender Martin Brodeur(notes) younger or heal forward Zach Parise’s(notes) knee injury. And, at age 65, he isn’t the long-term answer.

Lemaire has to stabilize the situation, while Lamoriello has to ask himself the same types of questions yet again: What now? Who’s next?

SECOND PERIOD

HBO executives must be smiling. NHL executives must be smiling. Heck, even the Capitals might be smiling in the end. Because as uncomfortable as it might have been to expose the hard times and broadcast all the F-bombs, the Caps’ eight-game losing streak gave the cameras the kind of conflict that makes for good drama. It might have given the team a defining moment, too.

After a 2-1 overtime loss to the Anaheim Ducks – Loss No. 7 of the streak – Boudreau sat in the office of general manager George McPhee. He was encouraged by the way the Capitals had played. He said that was how they had to win in the playoffs.

“Adversity is a good teacher,” McPhee said. “This could be the best thing that ever happened to us.”

Next lesson: the Bruins. After the Capitals fell behind 3-0, veteran Mike Knuble(notes) let loose as he paced the dressing room. He did not want the Caps to capitulate like they had six days earlier in an embarrassing 7-0 loss to the New York Rangers.

“It will not [bleeping] be one of these laughers again,” Knuble said. “It will not [bleeping] turn into a 5-0, 7-0 [bleeping] laugher, where they’re [bleeping] giggling. … We’re not [bleeping] going in the tank. That is enough right there. That’s [bleeping] more than a year’s worth.”

Knuble sat down.

“It’s not going to happen again,” Knuble said.

It didn’t. The Capitals lost 3-2, but they fought back. They fell behind 2-0 in the first period the next night against the Senators, but Boudreau gave the climatic speech – the one in which he mentioned that “bad things” could happen.

“This is a really important period for this year,” Boudreau told his players.

The Capitals scored three goals in the second and won 3-2. Primal screams. Cheers. Music. Relief. Followed by a 5-1 victory two nights later over the Devils, and now, of course, Thursday night’s game against … the Penguins.

THIRD PERIOD

Eventually, Detroit Red Wings goaltender Chris Osgood will get his 400th win – and eventually, it should help him get into the Hall of Fame.

No, Osgood wasn’t in the same class as the best goaltenders of his generation – Brodeur, Dominik Hasek(notes) and Patrick Roy. He doesn’t hold the records like Brodeur, didn’t dominate like Hasek and didn’t revolutionize the game like Roy. He never won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender, the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player or the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.

But 400 wins is 400 wins. Only nine goaltenders have that many, and Osgood will have taken the fewest amount of games to reach that milestone – by far. He has played 740 career games. Who has played the second-fewest games among the top 10 on the wins list? Jacques Plante, who played 837.

Osgood’s case is similar to Dino Ciccarelli’s. After an eight-year wait, Ciccarelli was inducted into the Hall of Fame in November mainly because he scored 608 NHL goals. He was only the ninth player to reach 600.

“You can’t deny numbers,” Osgood said. “They happen for a reason. If a guy gets 40 wins in one year and doesn’t have a good year after that, maybe it’s a flash in the pan. … But it’s guys that stick with it, stay around and manage to make something out of nothing at times. It’s not easy to get there. I know.”

Maybe it seemed easy. Osgood played on many great teams in Detroit. “I just think I was the right goalie at the right time in the right place on the right team,” Osgood said. But just because he was on the right team in the right place at the right time doesn’t diminish the fact that Osgood was the right goalie. Didn’t guys like Brodeur, Roy and Plante play on some great teams, too?

“You’re not getting 400 wins in this league unless you’ve got a good team and you’re a real good goalie for a long time,” Wings general manager Ken Holland said. “The perception around this team has been that we won because of our skaters and we lost because of our goaltending. You can’t win consistently in the NHL unless you get good goaltending. It’s impossible. The league is too good. When people have that attitude, it’s a slight or a lack of respect for the other 29 teams. We were playing lots of good teams. We were in lots of one-goal games, and Chris Osgood found a way.”

And 400 wins represents only the regular season. Osgood also has 74 wins in the playoffs. He started on two Stanley Cup runs with the Wings, in 1998 and 2008, and backstopped them all the way to Game 7 of the ’09 final.

“That’s what everybody always says: ‘You’re not a big-time goalie until you play in the playoffs,’ ” Osgood said. “Well, I mean, I won a lot of games in the playoffs. That’s what I judge myself off more than 400 wins.

“Four hundred wins is 400 wins. It’s an accomplishment. But you want to be known as a guy who played good when it meant the most. To me, it’s in the finals. Every time I’ve been there, I feel I’ve played pretty good and shown how good I am.”

OVERTIME

Ryan Kesler is a key to the Vancouver Canucks’ league-leading power play, setting up in front of the net with Henrik and Daniel Sedin(notes) lurking. It’s a nightmare for opposing goaltenders.

“They throw it down into him, and either he shoots it or he throws it over to one of the Sedin twins,” Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard(notes) said.

Howard allowed a power-play goal to each Sedin twin in a 5-4 overtime victory Wednesday night. Kesler had the primary assist on each goal. He has 12 points over his past seven games, including six goals, two of them on the power play.

“It’s one of those plays where you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Howard said. “If you try to take the pass away, he shoots it five-hole. If you take the five-hole away, then he throws it across. You’ve got to try to be in both spots at the same time.”

SHOOTOUT

In the West, only six points separate the first-place Red Wings from the eighth-place Anaheim Ducks. Only four points separate the fifth-place San Jose Sharks from the 12th-place Blues. “It’s disgusting,” Blues forward David Backes(notes) said. “I guess it’s great for the game, but it’s not so great when you’re looking to secure a playoff spot.”

In the East, however, four points separate the eight-place Bruins and the ninth-place Carolina Hurricanes alone. “I think there’s a big difference between the East and the West,” Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said. “I don’t know why.” The West is better from top to bottom, though the top Eastern teams are more than capable of winning the Cup.

The race in the West might have become even tighter Wednesday night when Pavel Datsyuk(notes) suffered a broken hand/wrist. The Wings – already missing third-line center Mike Modano(notes) (lacerated wrist) – still sit atop the standings with 46 points. But they haven’t been as dominant even with Datsyuk, 4-4-2 in their past 10 games.

The best image from the second episode of the HBO series had to be that of Caps defenseman Mike Green riding to the rink on a bright orange moped, wearing slippers instead of shoes, while most of his teammates ride in style in luxury cars.

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