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Plenty at stake for NHL teams after break

The last time the NHL and its players’ association hammered out a collective bargaining agreement, they extended the Christmas break. Formerly a two-day hiatus spanning Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the sides now get Dec. 26 off, too.

Rather than gorge themselves on holiday leftovers, the following clubs should spend Boxing Day searching for ways to boost their status once the NHL’s doors reopen:

• Buffalo: There are two sets of fans to please, as you probably know. One group wants the young Sabres to learn how to win now. The other wants them to learn next year - after the team selects Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel at the top of the draft.

For the win-now contingent, a scorer would be ideal. Once again, the Sabres are rock bottom in goals at 1.83 per game. Brian Flynn and Torrey Mitchell are quality role players, but they’re skating on the second line. The team could use a second-line scorer, especially with Cody Hodgson’s disappearance from the score sheet (two goals, four assists in 34 games).

For the lose-now delegation, the Sabres need to stop squeaking out victories. Buffalo is an impressive 11-4-3 in one-goal games, a .611 winning percentage that ranks seventh in the NHL. The Sabres were 30th last season at .325 (13-17-10).

• New York Islanders: Much to the dismay of the Sabres, who own New York’s first-round draft pick, the Isles are one of the league’s top turnaround stories. They’ll enter First Niagara Center on Saturday as the No. 5 team in the NHL with 46 points (23-11-0).

What the Isles don’t have are packed houses to cheer them on. They’re playing to 88.2 percent capacity, which ranks 24th in the league.

The Isles are in their final season in Nassau Coliseum, the decaying home that hosted four straight Stanley Cup champions in the early 1980s. A surge of nostalgia on Long Island could help the team transform from eye-opening upstarts to legitimate contenders.

• Anaheim: A glimpse at the standings might lead folks to believe the Ducks have it all. They pace the league in points with a 23-8-5 record. They’re hard to beat at home (11-3-3) and tops on the road (12-5-2).

But they’ve been hammered on defense, with illness or injury claiming Francois Beauchemin, Clayton Stoner and Ben Lovejoy. The result is a goal differential of just plus-6. Anaheim is sixth is goals with 104 and 11th in goals allowed with 98.

The Ducks picked up Eric Brewer from Tampa, but they could certainly use another stay-at-home defenseman to bring down the goals against.

• Toronto: If white-furred Carlton is anything like the Maple Leafs, the team mascot is a bipolar bear.

The Leafs can destroy anyone and lose to everyone. They lead the NHL with 13 victories by three or more goals. They’ve also lost eight times by three goals or more, which is the fourth-most defeats in that category. Their ninth-ranked power play has allowed a league-worst five short-handed goals. Their 10th-ranked penalty kill has scored a league-best six shorties.

If they reduce the lows and retain the highs, the Leafs could hold onto their playoff spot.

• Los Angeles: The Kings still reign in L.A. The defending Stanley Cup champions are 13-4-2 at home, making Staples Center one of the hardest buildings to win in for a road team.

The problems for the Kings come nearly everywhere else. They are 4-7-5 on the road, a record that bests only Edmonton, Buffalo and Carolina. That’s not the kind of company the Kings want to keep if they hope to repeat.

The Kings will get the home team’s best game whenever they arrive somewhere. They need to rise up and meet it.

• Edmonton: So many problems, so little time. The Oilers are without peer for dysfunction.

In 2009, then-General Manager Steve Tambellini fired Craig MacTavish as coach. In 2013, MacTavish replaced Tambellini as GM. This month, MacTavish fired coach Dallas Eakins and put himself back behind the bench (ostensibly as a “mentor” for Todd Nelson, who was promoted from the American Hockey League to be interim coach).

The Oilers need new faces or this run without the playoffs – soon to be nine years in a row – could go on forever.

• Detroit: The Red Wings are in position to make the playoffs for the 24th straight season. They’ve got balanced scoring. Goaltender Jimmy Howard backstops a squad that is ninth in fewest goals allowed.

They would be poised to pull away in the Atlantic Division if they could win a shootout. The Wings are a paltry 1-7 in the breakaway challenge and have the most overtime and shootout losses with nine. With even modest improvement after regulation, they would be ahead of Montreal and Tampa Bay instead of one point behind.


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