A healthy Tomas Vokoun might be just what the Nashville Predators need to strengthen their hold on the Central Division.
Vokoun is expected to make his third consecutive start Saturday when Nashville attempts to match its season-high five-game winning streak and sweep a home-and-home series with the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena.
The goaltender made 22 saves to earn his 18th career shutout in a 2-0 victory over Columbus on Friday in his second game since returning from a left thumb injury suffered on Nov. 23. Nashville (30-11-3) is trying to match a five-game win streak accomplished Oct. 26-Nov. 4, and Vokoun had four of those victories.
"Obviously, for me, it's the key to have good results," said Vokoun, who missed 20 games with the injury. "I'm just so happy the team is playing the way it's playing."
Vokoun returned Tuesday, making 27 saves in a 5-4 overtime win over Anaheim in a game featuring the top two teams in the Western Conference. The Czech Republic native followed that up with a solid performance against Columbus, one of two teams tied for the fewest points in the West with 37.
"We talked about it after the last game, Tomas coming back and being out for so long," Nashville forward Steve Sullivan said of Vokoun. "We wanted to be good in front of him. We wanted to minimize the great scoring chances and minimize second chances."
While Vokoun healed, Chris Mason filled in admirably with a 14-6-1 record and a 2.27 goals-against average. He returned to his backup role once Vokoun was declared healthy.
The Predators - who have 63 points - hope Vokoun can help them expand their four-point divisional lead over Detroit in the Central Division as well as catch Anaheim, which leads the West with 67 points.
Vokoun has been stellar against the Blue Jackets, going 4-0 this season and has a personal five-game winning streak against them with a 1.81 GAA in that span.
The Blue Jackets (16-23-5) are hoping to have their own star return to the lineup Saturday as Sergei Fedorov has missed the last two games with an elbow injury.
The Russian center is tied for the team lead with Rich Nash - who is on the injured list with a back injury - with 13 goals and is third with 28 points. Fedorov has one goal and five points in 10 games against the Predators since joining the Blue Jackets in a trade from Anaheim on Nov. 15, 2005.
Despite the absence of their top scorers, Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock felt there were positives to take out of Friday's loss.
"You allow two goals on the road, especially with who is in our lineup, that's pretty good stuff," Hitchcock said.
Hitchcock is trying to turn around a franchise that has yet to qualify for the playoffs since entering the NHL in 2000.
One area Columbus has struggled is scoring. The Blue Jackets have been shutout a league-leading 10 times this season, one shy of the franchise record established in 2001-02 and equaled in 2003-04.
The woes may continue as the club's all-time scoring leader - David Vyborny - has only three assists in the last seven games.