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Canada's six NHL teams doing fairly well at Christmas break

Four of Canada's six NHL clubs were sitting in a playoff spot at the Christmas break. Luckily for the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs, there's still lots of hockey to be played in the 2007-08 season.

The Leafs get right back at it Wednesday night when they continue their seven-game road trip on Long Island. The Eastern Conference-leading Ottawa Senators are also in action, paying a visit to the Buffalo Sabres.

Edmonton, Calgary, Montreal and Vancouver resume play Thursday night.

Here's a look at the six Canadian teams as they sit at the Christmas break:

Ottawa Senators - 23-8-4 record, 50 points, first in the Eastern Conference.

When John Paddock took over as head coach last summer he called his players and warned them about the Stanley Cup final hangover previous teams have often fell victim to. His players, led by captain Daniel Alfredsson, seemed to have taken those words to heart and have produced a fantastic opening 35 games to the season.

They are the class of an Eastern Conference that features 14 other teams trying to grab the final seven playoff spots.

Of concern for the Sens, however, is a potential goaltender controversy. Ray Emery, last year's playoff starter, has been unable to steal back his No. 1 job after beginning the season recovering from wrist surgery. Meantime, Martin Gerber has been terrific after a first-year flop as a Senator.

Holiday games: Wednesday at Buffalo, Thursday vs. N.Y. Islanders, Saturday vs. Washington, New Year's Day at Washington.

Vancouver Canucks - 20-13-4 record, 44 points, fourth in the Western Conference.

After a slow start, Roberto Luongo is perhaps on his way to capturing his first career Vezina Trophy. The Canucks have gone 15-6-4 since coming out of October only 5-7-0. What bodes well for the Canucks is their 9-2-3 record within their division.

Captain Markus Naslund has been more effective since being put on the top line with the Sedin twins. Defenceman Sami Salo hopes to find his 'A' game after battling a pair of injuries. The veteran Finn has only two assists in 20 games after putting up career highs in goals (14) and points (37) a year ago.

The offence never seems to satisfy the critics. Vancouver's 18th-ranked offence is still ranked ahead of fellow Western rivals Minnesota, San Jose and Anaheim. But with the long-term injury to centre Brendan Morrison, expect GM Dave Nonis to search long and hard for a top-flight centre before the Feb. 26 trade deadline.

Holiday games: Thursday vs. Calgary, Sunday vs. Anaheim, New Year's Eve at Calgary.

Calgary Flames - 17-13-7 record, 41 points, seventh in the Western Conference.

The Flames ended November at 10-13-3 with fans and media perplexed by a team that looked so much better on paper. Rock bottom was probably a 4-3 overtime loss to Columbus on Dec. 1 after which veteran head coach Mike Keenan openly criticized the play of star goalie Mikka Kiprusoff.

That appears to have been the turning point. Since then, Kipper has played outstanding and the Flames are looking like the contenders many had predicted, going 7-0-3 since the Dec. 1 loss to the Jackets.

Jarome Iginla has been outstanding. Third in NHL scoring with 49 points (24-25) in 37 games, the Flames captain is on pace for a career-high 53 goals and 108 points.

Holiday games: Thursday at Vancouver, Saturday vs. Anaheim, New Year's Eve vs. Vancouver.

Montreal Canadiens - 17-13-6 record, 40 points, fifth in the Eastern Conference.

The Habs were also sitting pretty last year at this time before a second-half meltdown saw them miss the playoffs by two points. Can they avoid it this year?

Either way, the Canadiens continue to build without bottoming out and have to be considered a mild surprise so far given that most people picked them to miss the playoffs. Of Montreal's 24 roster players, 11 are 25 years old or younger.

If there's a player that needs to be traded, it's winger Michael Ryder, who will be an unrestricted free agent July 1. He has just three goals in 31 games after back-to-back 30-goal seasons.

Holiday games: Thursday at Tampa Bay, Friday at Florida, Sunday at N.Y. Rangers.

Toronto Maple Leafs - 15-14-7, 37 points, 11th in the Eastern Conference.

The Leafs hit the Christmas break one point out of a playoff spot in the East, which demonstrates that not a whole lot has changed since they missed the playoffs by one point last April.

There will be more ups and downs but it seems inevitable that the Leafs will be around the eighth-place bubble the rest of the way.

The highlights so far have been the play of goalie Vesa Toskala, who after a slow start has won over Leaf fans with stellar netminding, and the consistent performance of centre Mats Sundin. The Leafs captain is on pace for a 96-point season, which would be the most points in his 13 seasons as a Maple Leaf (94 points in 1996-97). But will the 36-year-old Swede finish the season as a Leaf? He's an unrestricted free agent July 1 and if the Leafs are out of it come the trade deadline, there will be pressure on GM John Ferguson to move him in order to pick up some assets.

Holiday games: Wednesday at N.Y. Islanders, Thursday at Philadelphia, Saturday vs. N.Y. Rangers, New Year's Day vs. Tampa Bay.

Edmonton Oilers - 16-18-3 record, 35 points, 13th in the Western Conference.

The Oilers are 6-18-1 in games not involving a shootout this season - a startling statistic to be sure. But their prowess in the skill session (10-2) has helped ease the pain of a rebuilding phase.

Rookies Andrew Cogliano and Sam Gagner have been splendid on a 25-player roster that includes 14 players who are 25 and younger. Star defenceman Sheldon Souray played only 12 of his team's 38 games before the Christmas break after missing time with a shoulder injury but he's back and should make a difference on a power play that's dead last in the NHL.

Dustin Penner hasn't helped GM Kevin Lowe in defending his choice to lure the winger away from Anaheim with a $21.25-million, five-year offer sheet last summer although the hulking forward has played better of late.

A playoff spot doesn't seem in the cards in the tougher Western Conference but the young Oilers seem to have a bright future ahead of them.

Holiday games: Thursday vs. Anaheim, Saturday at Minnesota, New Year's Eve at Columbus, Jan. 2 at St. Louis.



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