Surprise! Sharks' Joe Pavelski is hottest hockey player on planet
Joe Pavelski leads playoffs in goals (9), game-winners (3) and PP goals (5)
Palvelski, 25, built on his experience from stepping up for U.S. Olympic team
After disappointing end to last season, Sharks are up 2-0 on Red Wings in Round 2
Yep, just like everyone predicted. Right at the top of the Stanley Cup playoff statistics for goal scoring, just nudging out Sidney Crosby, there's San Jose's Joe Pavelski.
First in goals (9). First in game-winning goals (3). First in power-play goals (5).
Even his own teammates can only laugh at Pavelski's blistering hot postseason. Rob Blake chuckled after Pavelski spurred the San Jose Sharks to a 2-0 lead in their second-round series with Detroit. "He's feeling it right now," Blake said.
In truth, Pavelski -- a 25-year old from Stevens Point, Wis. --started feeling it about three months ago. He was a key member of the scrappy American team that helped make the Vancouver Olympics the greatest hockey tournament ever.
The experience turned Pavelski from a little-known player -- even in his own dressing room he was identified as "Little Joe", to differentiate him from "Jumbo Joe" Thornton -- to someone creating buzz in the hockey world.
"He was on the bubble to make that Olympic team," said Sharks general manager Doug Wilson of Pavelski. "He earned it on merit. And any time you have the opportunity to compete best-on-best it allows you grow as a player. He proved he belonged there."
Sharks coach Todd McLellan spent a lot of his season navigating around the Olympics with eight Olympians. He had to make sure his players got adequate rest and tried as best he could to mitigate the impact of the Games on his team. But in Pavelski's case, the aftermath has been all positive.
"He went there not knowing what the young American team could do. Not knowing where he'd fit in," McLellan said. "He worked his way up. One thing he had going for him is that [U.S. coach] Ron Wilson knows him well, the way we know him."
The power of the Olympic experience: it can shatter spirits or open a vast well of confidence. The latter happened to Pavelski, who speaks about Vancouver with reverence.
"It was awesome," he said. "The pace of play, the crowd, the excitement. You definitely felt, in terms of skill level, you had to raise your game or you're going to be left behind.
"After last postseason, it was the first taste of something that means that much."
Last postseason, Pavelski scored just one point in the Sharks tiny and abbreviated playoff effort, when -- as the top seed -- they lost to Anaheim in the first round. While much of the postseason finger pointing centered on Thornton and Patrick Marleau, management was just as concerned about the disappearing act of the players on the second line -- including Pavelski.
But when Wilson sat down with Pavelski -- as he did with every player in an offseason of soul-searching -- he didn't have to point out Pavelski's shortcomings.
"He did it himself, right out of the gate," Wilson said. "He talked about what he needed to do to get better. And he went and did something about it. His hockey IQ is off the charts."
That's what everyone says about Pavelski, from Wilson to Mike Eaves, his coach at Wisconsin where he led the Badgers to the 2006 national championship, to Brian Burke, the general manager for the U.S. Olympic team. Burke calls Pavelski a "Swiss-army knife of a player."
"Watch how he plays -- you can play him at any position, at any time of the game," Wilson said. "He'll score a power play goal. He'll win the face-off. He's got a great skill set."
Pavelski -- now nicknamed "the Big Pavelski" -- has been in the right place this postseason, buzzing around the opposing goalie or finding a teammate in front of the net. His ability in the faceoff circle has helped give the Sharks great puck possession. He's not afraid to shoot -- taking 41 shots in eight games, second in the league.
Though the reticent player quickly turns all talk of his own accomplishments back to the team, he does confess to enjoying the moment.
"It's what you think about when you're lying in bed and can't sleep," he said.
Pavelski's emergence has given the Sharks some unusual breathing room. In recent years, ladened with great regular season performances and star expectations, the Sharks have squeaked into the postseason, tight and nervous and looking miserable to be the favorites.
Though they got have to a shaky start against Colorado, the Sharks have now won five games in a row -- three to close out the Avalanche and two to put the Red Wings in an early hole.
They are playing loose and confident. Something's different.
That something, surprisingly, is Pavelski.