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Monday, May 1, 2006
After strong season, injuries hurt Preds in playoffs

Associated Press

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

Nashville Predators

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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.