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Five months ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning believed Barry Melrose would be the coach to help them rejoin the NHL's elite.

For now, it will be up to Rick Tocchet to return them to respectability.

After Melrose's stunning dismissal, Tocchet will make his debut as the Lightning's interim coach on Sunday against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Melrose was fired on Friday by Tampa Bay (5-7-4) following an unimpressive 16-game stint that came after he left the television booth to coach the team that finished with the league's worst record in 2007-08.

"It's a disappointing day," general manager Brian Lawton said, adding he was concerned with the team's direction. "Myself, certainly the players and the rest of our staff, we all have to take responsibility for this as well."

Melrose, who had been out of coaching for 13 years, was the second NHL coach to be let go in 2008-09. Chicago fired Denis Savard four games into the season.

Tampa Bay lost its third straight game Thursday, 4-3 to Detroit in Melrose's finale.

Tocchet has been in the NHL for 25 years as a player and coach. He played 18 seasons, most notably with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and was an assistant with three clubs.

"We believe he's the type of coach who can take the team to the next level," Lawton said.

However, Tocchet has some baggage. He was sentenced to two years' probation in August 2007 after pleading guilty in an investigation into a sports betting ring. Tocchet said he never bet on NHL games, and rejoined Phoenix's staff in February after a two-year absence that included a league suspension.

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an e-mail that Tocchet is still bound by the terms of his reinstatement.

"If he's qualified to be an assistant coach on those terms, in our view, he's just as qualified to be a head coach," Daly said.

Tocchet inherits a team that's last in the league with 33 goals scored, and has been shut out three times this season despite having high-scoring All-Stars Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, and top overall draft pick Steven Stamkos.

Lecavalier - the franchise's all-time leading scorer - has just six goals and five assists in 2008-09. St. Louis, meanwhile, has 12 points after averaging 92.5 over the last two seasons.

Stamkos could be overmatched as a rookie. The 18-year-old center had one assist in his first eight games before scoring his first two NHL goals as part of a three-point night on Oct. 30. He's since failed to get a point in seven games.

After conducting his first practice on Saturday, Tocchet said Lightning players will be driven harder.

"We have to increase the energy level in some players," he said. "We've got to start getting these guys cranking on the ice, playing a high-tempo game."

Carolina (8-7-2) also has had trouble finding the back of the net recently. Including a 3-2 loss to Atlanta on Friday, the Hurricanes have tallied five goals during a three-game losing streak.

Tuomo Ruutu and Rod Brind'Amour scored on the power play Friday, and remain tied for the team lead with six goals overall. Eric Staal assisted on Ruutu's goal, but hasn't scored one of his own in the last six contests.

"We've got to be better. Everyone is frustrated," said Staal, who has five goals after leading Carolina with 38 last season.

Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward has allowed 11 goals while losing his last three starts.

The Lightning fell 4-3 at home in overtime to Carolina on Oct. 11, and have lost their last three visits to Raleigh.

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