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Nashville goalie healthy, ready after missing 2006 playoffs

The resulting first-round loss for the Predators? Easy to put into perspective. "I definitely was dealing with stuff a lot more important to me," Vokoun said.

Doctors eventually cleared the goaltender to return to the NHL, and Vokoun is healthy and eager to start his first post-season game since 2004 when the Predators open the Western Conference quarter-finals Wednesday against the San Jose Sharks - the same team that beat Nashville 4-1 last year with Vokoun out.

"I don't think I need any extra motivation," Vokoun said.

"I'm ready to have fun and to do what I love and trying to win the Stanley Cup. That's basically the only way you can look at it. . . . To anybody, it's going to bring pressure with it. It's going to be a lot of fun and a lot of hard work."

The Predators and Sharks are quickly building a long-distance rivalry.

Nashville was vying for the President's Trophy before a late-season stumble dropped the Predators to the No. 4 seed with franchise records for victories (51) and points (110). San Jose, which tied for the league's best mark in the final 10 games at 7-1-2, also had 51 wins (107 points) in grabbing the fifth seed.

Sharks centre Joe Thornton was second in the league with 114 points. The Predators have balanced scoring with six different players with at least 20 goals, not counting the post-season scoring threat Peter Forsberg brings with 162 goals in 139 playoff games.

Thornton said the Predators are better, which is scary.

"The teams are both better than last year, so I think it's going to be a spectacular series. We just need to take advantage of what we can do, and we need to keep it rolling into the post-season," Thornton said.

Of all the personnel changes for both teams, the position that remains the same is goaltender. This will be only the fifth playoff series in the past 20 years where each team has two goalies that played at least 45 per cent of the regular season games.

San Jose still has Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala, although Nabokov likely will start for the Sharks after watching Toskala play all five games against Nashville last year. He ranked seventh in the NHL with a 2.99 goals against average while playing 50 games.

Chris Mason filled in for Nashville during Vokoun's health scare, and he played 40 games this season, ranking second in the NHL with a save percentage of .925. Vokoun ranked fifth with a .920 save percentage.

Vokoun has been a little uneven since his return in January. He was very good Feb. 28 when Nashville won a shootout 4-3 in San Jose for the goalie's sixth straight victory against the Sharks, and he finished the season winning two straight, including a 4-2 win over a desperate Colorado.

Nashville coach Barry Trotz is expecting the best from Vokoun, who still wears a brace on his left hand after tearing cartilage in his left thumb - his stick hand - on Nov. 23. Vokoun is why Detroit needed six games to beat the Predators in the 2004 playoffs, and he helped the Czech Republic win gold at the 2005 world championships.

"We're expecting the same thing. He'll be excited. He's a guy that likes the stage and those types of things. He's always performed well. I'm excited to have him back in there," Trotz said.

The Sharks, who had an NHL-best 26 road victories, have something to prove themselves after being swept out of the second round by Edmonton last year. They added Bill Guerin and Craig Rivet in late trades for some experience.

"You want a challenge, and you always have to play against the best," Thornton said. "We're looking forward to seeing how far we've come, and whether we're ready."

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