In four months, John Stevens has gone from being a new NHL assistant coach to looking for ways to end a losing streak that threatens the Philadelphia Flyers' record book.
Philadelphia will try to avoid equaling its longest skid in franchise history as Stevens makes his head coaching debut against Ilya Kovalchuk and the Atlanta Thrashers at Wachovia Center on Thursday night.
On Sunday, Stevens was named the Flyers' 16th coach, replacing the fired Ken Hitchcock. The team also accepted the resignation of longtime general manager Bobby Clarke.
Though Hitchcock last month signed a contract extension through the 2008-09 season, Philadelphia (1-6-1) is off to its worst start in 17 years and has the fewest points in the league with three.
Stevens, a former Flyers defenseman who led their AHL team to the 2005 Calder Cup, said no one is sure what to expect.
"I think everybody's a little curious to see how we're going to respond," said Stevens, who was named Hitchcock's assistant in June. "You can practice and practice and practice. Now it's time to put it in motion."
Though he had a successful career as a coach in juniors and led the Dallas Stars to their only Stanley Cup win in 1999, Hitchcock was also known for an abrasive style that sometimes rubbed players the wrong way. The Flyers now hope better communication with the 40-year-old Stevens will mean better on-ice results.
"He's a great teacher, he's a great coach," center Mike Richards said of Stevens. "He's played the game so he knows the situation everyone's going through."
Stevens inherits a team struggling on both ends of the ice. Philadelphia dropped its fifth straight game Friday, a 3-2 defeat to Florida, and has been outscored 22-7 during its slide. The Flyers have lost a franchise-record six in row three times, most recently from Jan. 25-Feb. 5, 1994.
Overall this season, Philadelphia has scored only 15 goals - seven by Simon Gagne and Peter Forsberg - and is a woeful 4-for-55 (7.3 percent) on the power play.
"We're all responsible for what happened," Gagne said. "It's not only them. It's enough. We need to find a way."
Forsberg missed Friday's game after spraining his left wrist in a 4-1 loss Thursday to Tampa Bay, and will be a game-time decision. Though the Flyers are already 15 points behind the Eastern Conference-leading Buffalo Sabres, Forsberg said there is plenty of time to recover.
"It's a long way from being over. We've got 74 games left," he said after practice Wednesday. "It's early. We've just got to make sure we can turn it around."
To begin their climb from last in the Atlantic, goaltenders Antero Niittymaki and Robert Esche will need to play better. The pair have combined for a 4.46 goals-against average, and Niittymaki has posted four losses during the skid as he tries to play with a torn labrum in his hip.
Stevens said Nittymaki will start against the Thrashers, and Esche will be in net at least once in the next three games.
Philadelphia took three of four last season from Atlanta, with the only loss coming at home in overtime on Nov. 18. Gagne had five goals and an assist in four games, while Forsberg had a goal and four assists in three games.
Despite another goal from Kovalchuk, Atlanta (7-1-2) saw its four-game winning streak end Wednesday with a 5-4 overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. Carolina defenseman Anton Babchuk beat Kari Lehtonen for the winning goal 1:11 into the extra session.
Kovalchuk continued his recent tear when he scored midway through the third period to make it 4-all. During a five-game points streak, Kovalchuk has six goals and six assists - he managed only two assists in his first five games this season after scoring a career-high 52 goals in 2005-06.
"You tend to keep (Kovalchuk) in the corner of your eye," Carolina goaltender Cam Ward said. "I look at him and you have to be aware of where he is on the ice."
Kovalchuk tied a career high for points in a game with two goals and three assists in that 6-5 overtime win Nov. 18. He was held without a point in his other three games versus Philadelphia last season.