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(Sports Network) - The Nashville Predators hope to put a disappointing end to the regular season behind them tonight, when they welcome the San Jose Sharks to Nashville Arena for Game 1 of a best-of-seven Western Conference quarterfinal series.

Fourth-seeded Nashville was the frontrunner to earn the conference's No. 1 slot with less than four weeks remaining in the regular season, but a stretch of seven losses in 10 games -- including three costly defeats to rival Detroit -- put the Predators behind the Red Wings in the final standings in both the West as well as the Central Division.

Injuries played a key role in Nashville's late-season swoon, as valued forwards Martin Erat (knee), Steve Sullivan (back spasms) and Scott Hartnell (broken foot) all missed significant time down the stretch. Star center Peter Forsberg also sat out for two weeks in early March due to an upper-body ailment.

The Predators are getting healthier at just the right time, however. Hartnell was back in the lineup for the final two regular-season contests -- both Nashville wins -- and Erat, who hasn't played since March 17, appears to be on the verge of returning at some point during this series. Sullivan is expected to miss at least the first two games of this set.

At full strength, there aren't many teams that can match the Predators' speed and skill on offense. Forsberg (13 goals, 42 assists), still one of the game's premier playmakers and a two-time Stanley Cup champion during his days in Colorado, anchors a stellar top line that also includes Erat (16 goals, 41 assists) and four-time All-Star Paul Kariya (24 goals, 52 assists). The second line, featuring center Jason Arnott (27 goals, 27 assists), J.P. Dumont (21 goals, 45 assists) and Hartnell (22 goals, 17 assists), is nearly as formidable.

The Predators can hold their own on the back end as well. The team ranked third in the NHL in both penalty killing (85.9 percent) and power-play goals allowed (55), and has an elite goaltender in Tomas Vokoun (2.40 GAA, 5 SHO). The 30-year-old Czech was slow to regain his form after missing more than six weeks because of midseason thumb surgery, but played at his usually high level down the stretch.

San Jose put together a banner campaign this year, finishing with franchise records for victories (51) and points (107) to earn a spot in the playoffs for the seventh time in the last eight seasons. The fifth-seeded Sharks have advanced to the Western semifinals in four of their last five postseason appearances and got as far as the 2004 conference finals during head coach Ron Wilson's first full season at the helm.

The Sharks have the personnel to make another deep playoff run this year. Reigning Hart Trophy winner Joe Thornton leads a balanced offensive attack that finished sixth in the NHL in goals scored (256), while a solid defensive group and goaltending tandem enabled the team to tie for fifth in the league with 197 goals allowed.

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