NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - After coaching the underachieving New Jersey Devils for the first time this season, Jacques Lemaire laughed about their chances of making the playoffs.
Thirty four games into the season, the Devils are dead last (20 points) in the NHL, having lost four straight and 9 of 10.
The postseason is a longshot and the 65-year-old Lemaire knows it after his third stint with the once-mighty franchise began with a 5-1 loss to the New York Islanders on Thursday night.
"Let's start by winning a game," said Lemaire, who replaced rookie coach John MacLean on Thursday morning. "Winning a game is possible."
How the mighty have fallen. The team has made the playoffs every year since 1997 and usually ranks near the top of the Eastern Conference.
"When you struggle like we've struggled, you don't turn this around in a couple of shifts," Lemaire said. "It's going to take a little time but I know the guys will come back. I could see it."
Lemaire said he was enjoying retirement in Canada when he got a call Wednesday from 'his buddy,' Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello.
"He said: 'I need your help,"' said Lemaire, who retired after the playoffs last season and was still under contract to the team as a consultant. "At that time I couldn't say no."
Lemaire will finish the season with the team. His immediate goal is to get the players to work hard and to restore their confidence, which he says is shot based on what he saw on Thursday.
"I want this team to be competitive, that's what I want," Lemaire said. "I want this team to play against any one and be competitive."
Lemaire received a loud ovation from the crowd at the Prudential Center when he was introduced before the game, but he quickly discovered there is a lot of work to be done. The Islanders scored three times in the opening 11 minutes and were never threatened.
"It looked like they had lost their ability to play the game, which is very strange," Lemaire said. "I have never seen this in the past. Never."
Lamoriello took no pleasure in relieving MacLean.
"But it's a decision that, in my opinion, had to be made," he said.
Lamoriello made the decision two days after the Devils dropped a 5-1 decision to Washington for their third straight loss and eighth in nine games this month. The Devils have been outscored 20-4 in the last four games.
"I take responsibility for waiting and trying to get it to where it should have been," Lamoriello said. "Under no set of circumstances should all of this responsibility be placed on (MacLean). The responsibility lies on the players and myself for what couldn't be done. Unfortunately, we just weren't getting it done."
The Devils were expected to be among the NHL's leaders again this season after re-signing All-Star forward Ilya Kovalchuk to a 15-year, $100 million contract.
Kovalchuk, however, has been a major disappointment. He was even benched a game by MacLean for undisclosed reasons.
While saying the firing was unfortunate, Kovalchuk expected the move.
"The team's struggling and something had to happen," he said. "I'm sure Johnny will be back somewhere in some place. It's sad that it didn't work out for him. That's the reality of this business."
Goaltender Martin Brodeur was looking forward to working with Lemaire for a third time. Lemaire led the team to its first Stanley Cup title in 1995 and returned for a second stint last season before retiring.
"Jacques has the winning resume with him and he knows what has to be done to turn this around," Brodeur said. "This has to be a wake-up call for all of us."
Injuries to high-scoring left wing Zach Parise (knee), Brodeur (elbow) and others in the supporting cast have hurt the Devils, who were forced to play a couple of games early this season with less than 18 skaters because they were up against the NHL's salary cap.
Brodeur is back in the lineup, but Parise isn't expected back until February.
Not only is the goal-scoring down but the defense has struggled. Considered among the best in the league for more than 15 years, it has allowed 108 goals to rank in the bottom third.
One of the Devils' career scoring leaders, MacLean coached the franchise's top minor league team at Lowell (AHL) before replacing Lemaire this season. MacLean was a Devils assistant for seven years before going to Lowell.
"The blame has to fall some place," forward David Clarkson said. "It's a shame because we didn't give Johnny a fair shake. I feel bad for him, especially at this time of year."