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Associated Press
Jan 11, 2007, 4:30 PM EST

NASHVILLE , Tenn. (AP) -The Nashville Predators are not worried about messing up a good thing.

Goaltender Tomas Vokoun is back in the crease after missing 21 games with a torn ligament in his left thumb even though backup Chris Mason, who leads the NHL with a .928 save percentage, is a key reason why the Predators ranked second in the Western Conference going into the weekend.

Luckily, Vokoun and Mason are friends first, competitors second.

"I hope not to disrupt anything," coach Barry Trotz said of putting Vokoun back in the starting lineup.

"The guys are best of friends, and they cheer for each other. They both want to be in net, but they know each other's roles. Hopefully, Tomas gets off to a good start and gets on a roll. And hopefully, we can keep Mase going on his roll because he's really in a good groove right now."

Mason helped the Predators win 14 games during Vokoun's absence after hurting his stick hand against Vancouver on Nov. 23.

"I was just really happy to get a chance to play and help the team win," Mason said of his opportunity. "That's the bottom line. I've dreamed my whole life of getting a chance to play every day in this league, and I got that the last 21 games or so. I loved it."

But Vokoun, 30, is the goalie Nashville made its highest-paid player, signing him to a four-year contract extension worth $22.8 million in September.

His teammates are glad Vokoun is back.

"Whenever you can get your top player back in the lineup, it's always a big lift for your hockey team," right wing Steve Sullivan said.

"Chris, he's been very diplomatic about it, and obviously he wants to play. He's let everybody know he's ready to play when he has to, but realizes the situation and that Tomas was the No. 1 goaltender and that he's going to come back and get that opportunity to be it."

Vokoun is 103-73-27 since taking over as the starter in December 2002. He was an All-Star in 2004 and won the gold medal at the 2005 World Championship with the Czech Republic. Last season, he finished fourth in the voting for the Vezina Trophy after a career-high 36 victories despite missing the final 13 games with blood clots.

"Naturally you want to be out there," Vokoun said. "That's where the most fun is, to play games."

He used his time off with goalie coach Mitch Korn to stay in condition and work on his footwork.

Vokoun gave up a goal on the first shot he faced Tuesday night but helped the Predators pull out the 5-4 victory over Anaheim by stopping two shots by Teemu Selanne and another by Scott Niedermayer in overtime. Vokoun knows that wasn't one of his best games.

"It's not going to be easy to get back, but that is what the situation is. I'm going to try and get better as I go along," said Vokoun, still wearing a brace to protect his surgically-repaired thumb."

That was Nashville's third straight victory and pulled the Predators within four points of the conference-leading Ducks despite having played two fewer games than Anaheim.

Now it's Mason, who signed a new contract in the offseason to return as Vokoun's backup and stay in town with a newborn daughter, who has to readjust to sitting, watching and waiting.

"Anyone will tell you once you get playing, you really get a feel and you feel really comfortable in there every night. I play when coach Trotz tells me to play. I'll just try to be ready and practice for when I do get games, so I'll try to use those as games now," Mason said of practice.

The Predators are off to the best start in franchise history in their eighth season with a record of 29-11-3 through 43 games. Goaltending has been a big reason, with Nashville tied with New Jersey for the NHL's best team save percentage (.921).

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