NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -Claude Julien was as surprised as anyone when he was fired as the New Jersey Devils coach Monday.
In his first public comments since being removed, Julien said he wasn't expecting to be fired because only three games remained in the regular season and his team was in first place and primed for the playoffs.
"You're thinking you're going to be heading into the playoffs and you're getting mentally prepared for that," Julien said in a teleconference Wednesday. "You don't want to be let go with three games left in the season, but at the same time, everybody has a job to do, and that's a part of the game you have to understand."
Julien's firing stunned Devils players as well, even though the team had gone through a rough stretch, losing seven of their first 10 games in March. New Jersey has won five of its last six games since then, including Tuesday night's 2-1 win over Ottawa in general manager Lou Lamoriello's first game behind the bench.
Julien didn't criticize Lamoriello, who told reporters Monday that he made the 11th-hour change because he felt the team lacked focus and wasn't mentally or physically ready for the playoffs.
"As coach, sometimes you make decisions that are tough to understand but are for the good of the hockey club," Julien said. "In Lou's mind, he really thought that was the best decision for the hockey club, and I have to respect that."
The firing came a day after the Devils regained first place in the Atlantic Division with a 3-1 win at home against Boston. Winger Brian Gionta, last season's leading scorer, made his return in that game after missing 19 of the team's previous 21 games with a groin injury.
Forwards John Madden and Patrik Elias were also sidelined with groin injuries but have returned to the lineup, though forward Scott Gomez is nursing a leg injury. Julien said the team was starting to regain its form in time for the playoffs.
"We were working on that, for sure," he said. "Obviously we had some injuries, but you always hope that with your players coming back it's going to help. But there are certain things you can control and certain things you can't."
Although he acknowledged that the firing hurt him on a personal as well as professional level, Julien said he had no regrets about coming to the Devils last year and that in general he had been treated well by Lamoriello.
Before coming to the Devils, Julien was fired by the Montreal Canadiens midway through the 2005-06 season with a 19-16-6 record. He led the Canadiens to the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2004.
Lamoriello has moved behind the bench for the second straight year, although he said he does not plan to coach the team again next season. Julien said he had not talked to Lamoriello about whether he would remain with the club in another capacity.
Julien was hired by New Jersey last June. Lamoriello had coached the team through the end of the 2005-06 season following coach Larry Robinson's surprise resignation in December 2005. The Devils won their final 11 regular-season games to win the Atlantic Division, then swept the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs before losing to eventual champion Carolina in the conference semifinals