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After strong season, injuries hurt Preds in playoffs

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Nashville Predators have learned
just how valuable goaltender Tomas Vokoun is to the franchise.

With Vokoun, the Predators came out of the NHL lockout taking
full advantage of the new labor deal their owner helped negotiate
and turned in their best season in their seventh year of
competition with 106 points and a 32-8-1 home record that was the
league's best.

But Vokoun didn't play after April 1 because of a rare blood
condition. Even though the Predators tried to be optimistic, their
second playoff berth ended Sunday night in five games with a 2-1
loss to San Jose.

"We didn't have our stopper in there unfortunately, but that's
the way it goes," coach Barry Trotz said.

So forget the eight-game winning streak to open the season, the
six victories in shootouts and a franchise-best 49 victories. The
slew of records, Paul Kariya's scoring punch as the big free agent
signee and that No. 4 seed in the Western Conference couldn't help
when it mattered most.

Not only did the Predators not have Vokoun, two other key
players also were hampered by injuries.

Steve Sullivan, their second-highest scorer, missed the final
nine games with a strained groin that limited him to two points in
the playoffs. Marek Zidlicky had scored 49 points as a defenseman,
but missed the final 11 games after separating his shoulder.

They came back but were never close to their best at a physical,
fast team like the Sharks. San Jose coach Ron Wilson said he was
glad to clinch the series before Sullivan and Zidlicky and others
could heal up.

"They were red-faced at the pace we were trying to play the
game at," Wilson said.

Trotz said they can't worry about what they didn't have.

"The moons didn't line up that way. ... That's neither here nor
there," Trotz said.

With no Vokoun in net to cover mistakes, penalties wound up
killing the Predators.

Only Washington had more penalties (550) than Nashville's 533.
Nashville tied for fifth in the NHL in killing penalties in the
regular season but gave up 10 power-play goals to San Jose,
including three when down 3-on-5.

"All series long we were in the box, can't score from there,"
Predators forward Paul Kariya said.

The Predators talked about being more disciplined during the
series with the Sharks. But they couldn't stop themselves even with
officials watching closely.

"We are a little bit of an edgy team in terms of causing a
little anger with guys like [Darcy] Hordichuk, [Scot] Nichol and
[Jordin] Tootoo and people like that ...," Trotz said.

"Our penalties in terms of self-discipline at times this year
was a problem, and it came back to haunt us a little bit in the
playoffs. We took too many penalties against a very good team."

The Predators still have a very young team, and rookie
defenseman Shea Weber played well against the Sharks. But they do
have some decisions to make on some key players who become free
agents on July 1.

Nashville likely will want to keep Zidlicky and defensemen Mark
Eaton, Danny Markov and Brendan Witt, especially after trading a
first-round pick to Washington for Witt in March to add size and
experience. General manager David Poile also must decide on
forwards Greg Johnson, Yanic Perreault and Mike Sillinger -- another
trade pickup.

The biggest question hanging over the Predators remains Vokoun's
health.

Doctors said weeks of blood thinners should resolve the clots in
his abdomen that had threatened his life, allowing him to return to
hockey in the fall. But this is a condition they called so rare
that they hadn't seen it before.

Trotz is treating this season as part of the growing process,
something he's overseen as this franchise's only coach. He is using
Detroit's failures before winning Stanley Cups as an example.

But coming up a game shorter than the last playoff when they at
least took the Red Wings to a Game 6 before bowing out was a sharp
disappointment.

"A lot of positives this year, but this is no longer
acceptable," Sullivan said.