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Post-Christmas games feature division rivalries

by Adam Schwartz / NHL.com
The NHL comes back strong from the Christmas break Friday night with nine games on tap, including six divisional matches.

Early games feature the Devils playing the Penguins (7 p.m. ET, RIS), the Islanders hosting the Maple Leafs and the Sabres looking to avoid losing for the fourth time in five games when they face the Capitals.

Later, the Hurricanes renew their rivalry with the Thrashers; the Panthers try to go 3-0 on their three-game homestand when they face the Lighting; the Central Division-leading Red Wings look to expand their lead when they face the Predators; and the Flyers visit Chicago.

Two late games see the Oilers clashing with the Canucks for the fourth time, and the Coyotes face the Kings in the first half of a home-and-home series.

Here's what to watch:

* Pittsburgh left wing Matt Cooke, who hasn't had more than 30 points since the 2002-03 season, has 10 assists and 14 points in 30 games and is on pace for 36 points this season. Cooke, who signed with the Penguins as a free agent this summer, is seventh in the League and leads Pittsburgh forwards with 110 hits.

* Devils center Travis Zajac, who mostly plays on a line with Jamie Langenbrunner and Zach Parise, leads the team with 19 takeaways. Zajac, who had 34 points and a minus-11 rating last season, has 23 points and a plus-9 rating in 32 games this season.

* Maple Leafs defenseman Jeff Finger, who signed a four-year deal with Toronto as a free agent this summer, leads the team with 74 blocked shots. Finger, a stay-at-home defenseman, averages the second-most ice time on the team at 21:30.

* The Capitals, who overcame a four-goal deficit Tuesday night to beat the Rangers 5-4 in overtime, are pulling away in the Southeast Division, where they have an eight-point lead over the second-place Hurricanes. Washington, which has scored the most goals in the division with 112, has the third-best power play in the Eastern Conference at 23.0 percent.

* Carolina center Tuomo Ruutu, who had a career-high 44 points as a rookie in 2003-04, has 21 points in 32 games this season, putting him on pace for 52 points. Ruutu, drafted No. 9 in 2001 by the Blackhawks, is third on the team with 11 goals, but has just 1 goal in his last five games.

* The Panthers, the only team in the League without a player with at least 20 points, are just one point out of a playoff spot. Florida, which has just one regulation loss in its last seven games (5-1-1), has yielded just 83 goals, the fewest in the Southeast Division.

 
* Detroit right wing Mikael Samuelsson has 22 points in 33 games, but just 1 point in his last 10 games. Samuelsson, who averages 15:39 of ice time, played 13:08 in his last game, which was the least ice time he's seen since Oct. 22.       

* Blackhawks right wing Patrick Sharp leads the team with 18 goals. Sharp, who averaged 2:21 of shorthanded ice time last season, is averaging 1:11 of shorthanded ice time this season.

* Philadelphia center Mike Richards, who is second on the team with a plus-15 rating, is plus-9 on the road. Richards, whose favorite video game was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for Nintendo, has just 1 point in his last four games.

* Oilers right wing Ales Hemsky, who entered this season with four straight minus seasons, is a plus-1 this season but a minus-4 in his last four games. Hemsky, who has 22 of his 33 points on the road, has 5 points in his last 5 games.

* Vancouver right wing Kyle Wellwood, whose career-high is 12 goals, has tied that mark in just 30 games this season. Wellwood, who had 6 goals in his first eight games of the season, has just 1 goal in his last nine games.

* Coyotes right wing Peter Mueller, who had 22 goals last season, has just 5 goals this season, including none in his last 21 games. Mueller, who plays the point on the power play, has 8 assists and 9 points in nine career games against the Kings.

* Buffalo defenseman Toni Lydman, who is ninth in the League with 80 blocked shots, leads the team with an average of 3:10 of shorthanded ice time per game. Lydman has a minus-5 rating in his last two games.

Contact Adam Schwartz at aschwartz@nhl.com.
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