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In a city where hockey matters regularly intersect with the theatrical, it was fitting that Montreal Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey delivered the latest dramatic plot twist in the appropriate costume: a funeral suit.

A drawn and slightly flushed Gainey announced yesterday he has dismissed his friend Guy Carbonneau as coach of the team he led on the ice for five years as captain and from the bench for almost three more.

It's a stunning dénouement for a coach whose hiring Gainey unhesitatingly called his finest move on Jan. 12.

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"The decision today can be seen as a contradiction … but in the last eight weeks our performance has been below average and I believe that a change in the direction at ice level is necessary," said Gainey, who will step behind the bench on an interim basis for the second time since 2006.

In retrospect, the first clue dropped at the March 4 trade deadline, when Gainey pointed out his coaching staff would be held accountable for the team's successes and failures.

And maybe there should have been an inkling on Feb. 15, when Carbonneau said he was out of answers to right his listing team, then in the midst of a dismal 3-11-1 slide.

Or on Feb. 17, when it came down to the GM, rather than the coach, to demand an attitude adjustment of moody forward Alexei Kovalev.

Now, two losses and one ugly win after Gainey's trade deadline warning, Carbonneau finds himself in the dole line and the Habs' tumultuous centennial chalks up another lowlight.

Though the Canadiens are 5-2 since Feb. 21, they have looked wobbly since the January all-star break and face a fight to make the postseason.

Gainey said he began his reflection on Carbonneau's ouster on Saturday morning - he spoke with team president Pierre Boivin, then scrapped plans to attend this week's meetings of NHL GMs - and made the final call yesterday morning.

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He met with the 48-year-old Carbonneau at about 5 p.m. ET, when the team returned from a road game in Dallas, calling it "absolutely a difficult decision."

Carbonneau, a fiery native of Sept-Îles, Que., and 2007-08 finalist for the NHL coach of the year, enters the books with a 124-83-23 career coaching mark, and leaves behind a team whose form has fluctuated wildly.

The Canadiens found themselves fifth in the Eastern Conference going into last night, one of six teams in a dogfight for three playoff spots. Tonight they open a stretch against the Edmonton Oilers in which they play nine of 10 at home; half the Habs' remaining 16 regular-season games are against non-playoff teams.

"The players have a responsibility, and that will be my task: to get it laid out in front of them," Gainey said, adding "the real answer will be in 35 days."

The first step will be renewed insistence on reducing opposition shot totals.

Though Gainey admitted he and Carbonneau had "philosophical differences" on handling goaltenders and other matters, he brushed aside suggestions the move was aimed at papering over his own faults.

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"Was I thinking specifically about my own job? I wasn't," he said.

And did any players demand Carbonneau's firing?

"Never," said Gainey, a former Habs captain who has coached 465 NHL games.

It's clear one of the last straws was a 2-0 loss last week to the lowly Atlanta Thrashers.

Gainey said he was disturbed by performances "where our team wasn't emotionally engaged" despite evident playoff implications.

"I can't say there could be anybody here who follows our team who hasn't had this question in their mind at some point in the last month," Gainey said.

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Several players contacted last night expressed surprise at the news of Carbonneau's firing, but little regret that he has been replaced.

For weeks there have been whispers surrounding Carbonneau's treatment of veterans like the recently traded Steve Bégin, constant line juggling, and poor rapport with young players.

Carbonneau, who signed a contract extension in September, was criticized within and without as a poor communicator, and tetchily told reporters recently the team should hire one "if that's what they want."

If anyone could empathize it's RDS analyst Jacques Demers, who coached the team to its last Stanley Cup in 1993 and was fired two years later.

"I feel very sad for Guy . . . but at the same time, things couldn't continue with the way the team is playing," Demers said in an interview. "The players would never say it out loud, but the way they played said they wanted him out."

Carbonneau is the fifth successive coach to pilot the team despite having no previous NHL track record.

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"I think it's time for someone with experience, and maybe the team needs to forget about it having to be a francophone," Demers said..

Though Gainey will fill the job until the end of this season, the oddsmaker's favourite to succeed Carbonneau is likely Don Lever, coach of the Habs' AHL affiliate Hamilton Bulldogs.

Lever is to join the Canadiens coaching staff today in an unspecified capacity, and will be counted on to deliver "strong button-pushing mechanisms" for players he handled with the Bulldogs.

Other likely candidates include former Colorado Avalanche and Atlanta coach Bob Hartley, a French-language television analyst.

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