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
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
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
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