Preds step up for playoffs after losing Vokoun

Updated: April 19, 2006, 10:08 PM ET
Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- No team in the NHL took as big a hit late in the season as the Nashville Predators did in losing their goaltender Tomas Vokoun to a rare blood condition. Now they have a chance to show how well they have regrouped when it matters most.

The Predators open the playoffs Friday night hosting San Jose. They finished the regular season as the NHL's winningest home team with a record of 32-8-1 and have won six straight overall.

It's a nice switch for a team that admittedly struggled by losing six of seven down the stretch.

"We finished up the last couple weeks playing some of our best hockey of the year, especially defensively, and the old cliche 'Defense wins championships,' that's an important part of our game," defenseman Mark Eaton said Wednesday.

The Predators announced only last week that Vokoun would miss the entire postseason with blood clots in his abdomen, a condition called pelvic thrombophlebitis. He was an important part of the team, winning 36 of their franchise-high 49 victories.

They had been at risk of losing the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference as Anaheim pulled within two points before new No. 1 goalie Chris Mason got hot. He went 3-0 last week with a shutout and a 1.01 goals-against average, allowing only three goals off 80 shots in the stretch.

Mason also set a franchise record with a shutout streak that spanned 143 minutes.

"Since then, we just picked it up, and hopefully, we just don't look back," Mason said.

The Predators have a few other things going for them.

They set a string of franchise records scoring 259 goals, including 94 on the power play. Paul Kariya, the biggest free agent signing in Nashville's seven-year history, had a team-record 85 points and had his first hat track of the season in Tuesday night's 6-3 win over Detroit.

"That was a good way to come into the playoffs I think," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. "I think Paul always prepares himself for whatever he does. If that's an indication of how he's going to play in the playoffs, he stands a good chance to have a big impact."

Kariya wasn't Nashville's lone offensive threat. When Martin Erat scored a power-play goal in the second period Tuesday night against the Red Wings, he became the sixth Predators player with 20 or more goals this season.

Nashville also limited opponents to fewer than 30 shots per game in six of their final seven games, allowing only Detroit to take 33.

But the Predators will need much more offense going against Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo of the Sharks. Whether they get it remains to be seen.

Steve Sullivan, tied with Kariya for 31 goals, skated Wednesday for the first time since a strained groin sidelined him for the final nine games. Trotz said Sullivan has a better chance of returning than Marek Zidlicky, their top scoring defenseman with 49 points, who missed the last 11 games with a separated shoulder.

Sullivan said he felt pain free and hoped to skate again Thursday and Friday.

"After our little slump, the team's going really well. I don't feel any pressure to come back in and pull someone out that might be playing really good for me not to be completely ready," he said.

Starting at home may be the Predators' biggest advantage.

They were close to selling out their first two games in an arena that shook in their playoff debut in 2004 when they took Detroit to six games in a series they had no hope of ever winning.

"We remember the great atmosphere here, how inspiring the fans were," Eaton said. "This is why you play. This is the best time in the year. Being able to start at home makes it that much better."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press