Juniper ( JNPR) fans are hoping to learn Tuesday afternoon that the Internet equipment specialist ended 2006 on a high note.

The Sunnyvale, Calif., tech shop reports fourth-quarter earnings after the market closes. Investors are anxious to see whether Juniper was able to build on the gains of the third quarter.

Juniper hit a bit of a rough patch starting in 2005. There were some strategic missteps followed by a management shake-up. Rival Cisco ( CSCO) suddenly had a resurgence in sales. And of course a little accounting matter related to employee stock options created a distraction.

By August, the stock hit a three-year low as many investors lost patience waiting for a return to growth.

Meanwhile a consolidation trend swept through the sector. Wireless giant Ericsson ( ERIC) bought Redback, a Juniper competitor. And last month, Cisco bought IronPort, a network security outfit.

The moves seemed to leave Juniper even further out in the cold, considering the recent mergers at Alcatel-Lucent ( ALU), Nokia ( NOK) and Siemens ( SI).

But some industry trends are still working in Juniper's favor, as faster home connections and surging data traffic from businesses require more network expansion. With Juniper's main business focused on Internet protocol, the company is still squarely in the hot spot.

Analysts expect Juniper to turn in an adjusted profit of 19 cents on $593 million in sales, according to Reuters Research. Those numbers are in line with the company's guidance in October.

Some bulls are hoping the company nails expectations and then starts to see the telco spending start to roll in as the year goes on.

"We continue to believe Juniper's revenue growth begins reaccelerating in late 2007, after reaching a low point in fourth quarter of 2006," JPMorgan analyst Ehud Gelblum writes in a recent research note. Gelblum has a buy rating on the stock.

Merrill Lynch analyst Tal Liani also rates Juniper a buy, with a long-range view on the stock.

"We believe the stock lacks near term catalysts, but expect the second half of 2007 to offer better trends," Liani writes in a note.