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Legions of fans had been baying for his blood for weeks, and on Saturday the Montreal Canadiens decided to give it to them.

So it is that head coach Jacques Martin was handed his walking papers by his longtime colleague and friend, general manager Pierre Gauthier, at an early-morning meeting eight days before Christmas.

"There's never a right time or a fun time to do this," said Gauthier. "I don't mind admitting I didn't sleep very much [Friday night]."

He added that while he had the utmost respect for Martin as a coach - he was at pains to emphasize the point - the time had come for a change.

Gauthier allowed that he had been mulling a coaching switch over the past couple of weeks, and though he said he made the move in order to inject new life into what has been a very average team through the first 30 games, he turned to Martin's assistant, Randy Cunneyworth.

Change, then, in the spirit of continuity.

That Cunneyworth becomes the first unilingual anglophone to coach the team since Bob Berry's three-year stint in the early 1980s is assuredly a major talking point for a franchise that has struggled this season to inspire its fan base.

Gauthier said "languages can be learned" and Cunneyworth pledged to improve his limited grasp of Quebec's majority language - a series of wins would of course defuse any brewing controversy, but it's unclear whether fans and the rabid Montreal media will be mollified by those assurances.

It's also hard to see how Cunneyworth will be a tonic for the thousands who made a sport out of denouncing Martin's system, which critics derided as stultifying and rigid.

In a news conference after the team's morning skate - the Habs play the New Jersey Devils at the Bell Centre on Saturday - Cunneyworth said that he doesn't have any immediate plans to overhaul Martin's defence-first philosophy.

"I think it's a lot to do with the execution," said Cunneyworth, who played 866 NHL games during his 19-year pro career.

Though he has held various coaching jobs over the last 11 years, it is the 50-year-old Etobicoke, Ont., native's first opportunity to take over an NHL bench.

"It's a tremendous honour to be chosen as the coach of this team," said Cunneyworth, who said he felt conflicting emotions at succeeding Martin, whom he played for as captain of the Ottawa Senators.

Though they frittered away some valuable points over their past seven games, the Habs' form has improved, which may be why the news was greeted with astonishment - not to say shock - within the dressing room.

"I really didn't see this coming," said centre David Desharnais, shaking his head.

"I'm very surprised, you never want to see anyone lose a job, I know Jacques gave everything he had to this team," said defenceman Hal Gill. "This has to be a wake-up call for us."

As is customary under such circumstances, the players said complimentary things about Martin and insisted the blame falls on them.

"The message is the results have to improve," said veteran winger Mathieu Darche, "if [firing the coach] doesn't work, the changes won't stop there."

Officially, Cunneyworth is an interim replacement for Martin, but Gauthier said his hope is "to continue with the same group."

In addition to appointing a new head coach, the team also announced that assistant general manager Larry Carriere will move behind the bench as an assistant, joining fellow assistant Randy Ladouceur.

It seems something of a gamble to replace Martin, who has 1,294 NHL games of head-coaching experience (including a 96-75-25 mark in two-plus seasons with the Habs), with a man who despite nine years as a minor-league bench boss has zero, and who will be assisted by another, Carriere, who has never stood behind a bench at any level.

But Carriere and Cunneyworth are longtime collaborators from their days in the Buffalo Sabres organization, and Gauthier said he hopes the former's knowledge of the league and ebullient personality will be a benefit in the dressing room.

Cunneyworth, who joined the team as an assistant coach last summer after running the Habs' AHL affiliate in 2010-11, said he expects more commitment from his players, and greater competitive fire.

He was insistent that his charges will be held to account, and Gauthier clearly hopes that changing the messenger - if not in the message - will resolve the inconsistency and late collapses that have plagued the team.

"Over the last few weeks, we didn't know what would be coming out of the box every night," said Gauthier, who earlier this season fired assistant coach - and longtime Martin confidant - Perry Pearn in an effort to kickstart the team.

It worked in that case, the Habs went out just a few hours later and smoked the Philadelphia Flyers 5-1.

The Canadiens close out a homestand against conference rival New Jersey - they sit last in their division and 11th in the East, two points behind the Devils for the eighth and final playoff spot.

Next week, the Habs take to the road for their traditional Yuletide trip - success or failure in the six-game journey may well determine whether they make the playoffs.

The stakes are considerable, which may explain why Gauthier didn't opt for a more radical overhaul and a different coaching philosophy.

"Everybody needs to be on board," said captain Brian Gionta. "If they're not, it doesn't matter what kind of system you have."

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