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Stirling gets ax

Steve Stirling was a company man to the bitter end,

even to the point of running practice yesterday at Nassau Coliseum despite his

fate being all but sealed. An eighth loss in nine games, a seven-point gap from

a playoff berth and furious fans calling for his head created the formula for

change for tonight's game against the Calgary Flames at the Coliseum.

By today, the "Fire Stirling!" chants will have achieved their objective.

It's possible that the "Mike Must Go" chants might come to fruition, as well.

Mike Milbury's status as general manager is uncertain.

What is certain is that the Islanders called a news conference for today

after the team's morning skate, when it is expected that Milbury will announce

that assistant coach Brad Shaw will take over as interim head coach and run the

bench for tonight's game against the Flames.

Some expected Milbury to take over for Stirling. With more than half of the

season left (43 games), the Islanders aren't out of the playoff hunt in the

East. But despite GM Lou Lamoriello's recent success with the Devils, Milbury

was against going back to the bench for a third time in his 10-year tenure with

the Islanders.

So it will be Shaw, 41, a former NHL defenseman with four years of

head-coaching experience in the minor leagues. Aside from this season, Shaw has

one year behind an NHL bench: as an assistant coach with the 1999-2000 Tampa

Bay Lightning.

It is not likely the Islanders will conduct a search for a head coach to

take over this season. The team will likely hire one in the offseason as part

of a major turnover.

The leading candidate is former Islanders captain Brent Sutter, who has had

tremendous success as a junior coach and coach of Team Canada's back-to-back

gold medal-winning teams at the World Junior Championships.

Two of the Islanders' top prospects, 2005 first-round pick Ryan O'Marra and

2004 second-round pick Blake Comeau played for Sutter at the World Juniors

this month.

Sutter is a hot commodity now, especially with the Devils looking for a new

coach. Lamoriello has long had a good relationship with the Sutter family,

including Flames GM/coach Darryl Sutter. But it is not expected that Brent

would leave his junior team in Red Deer, Alberta, which he owns and serves as

GM and coach, in mid-season.

So let the courtship begin.

Shaw will be the eighth coaching change Milbury has made since January

1997, when he replaced himself with Rick Bowness in order to concentrate solely

on his responsibilities as general manager. It is also the fifth midseason

coaching change made by Milbury. The last came in March 2001, when Lorne

Henning was promoted to interim coach to replace Butch Goring. That team

finished last overall in the NHL and Henning was gone.

Stirling, who finished with a career record of 56-51-13-4, coached the

Islanders to a third consecutive playoff berth in 2003-04, but this season,

with a completely revamped defense, the team struggled from the start and

hovered around the .500 mark through mid-December. But an embarrassing 9-6

defeat in Toronto on Dec. 19 was the beginning of the end. The team has won

just two games since then, Dec. 21 against the Devils and last Wednesday over

the Panthers.

The team is now four games under .500 (18-22-4) and seven points behind the

Devils and Tampa Bay for the eighth spot in the East. After back-to-back

losses to Carolina, Stirling was on shaky ground. Tuesday's 2-1 loss to

Nashville was the final straw.

Milbury's first attempt to shake up the team came just hours before the

Nashville game when he traded veteran defenseman Janne Niinimaa to Dallas in a

salary dump to clear space under the $39-million salary cap and next year's

cap. The move also allowed the team to promote rookie defenseman Bruno Gervais

from the minors.

Look for more of the same kind of moves in the near future, though getting

someone to take on Alexei Yashin's contract will be next to impossible.

History of failure

The Islanders have had 11 coaches in their 33-season history; Steve

Stirling is one of only three to post a winning record.

Winners

Name Record

Al Arbour 739-537-223

Peter Laviolette 77-62-19-6

Steve Stirling 56-51-13-4

Losers

Phil Goyette 6-38-4

Earl Ingarfield 6-22-2

Bill Stewart 11-19-7

Lorne Henning 19-39-7

Butch Goring 24-89-14-4

Rick Bowness 37-50-12

Mike Milbury 57-111-24

Terry Simpson 81-82-24

Tonight

Flames at Islanders

7 p.m.

TV: FSN

Radio: WBBR (1130)

New York Sports