For a guy who tends to fly under the radar, Joe Pavelski sure knows how to make a big impact in the playoffs. Not as heralded as some of his superstar teammates such as the Big 3 - Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton - but it was Pavelski who led San Jose in scoring with eight points during the Sharks hard-fought opening round victory over the Colorado Avalanche. Among his five goals was a last minute game tying goal in Game 2, the overtime winner in Game 4, and the series clinching game winner in Game 6.
In The Conference Semifinals it's been more of the same. In both Game 1 and 2 against the Detroit Red Wings there has simply been no stopping "Little Joe" as Pavelski continued his clutch play with two goals and an assist in each game.
Now in his fourth NHL season with the Sharks, Pavelski appeared in 67 regular season games, recording 51 points on 25 goals and 26 assists (he also scored 25 goals during his breakout 2008 season). The Plover, Wisconsin native was also a member of the silver medal winning Team USA at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver this past February. During a recent league-organized media conference call Pavelski talked about finding that elusive early success in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"[In the] first series we talked about overcoming. Didn't really matter how we got there, we just wanted to win. I think other years he's [Thornton] led the way at times. It was just important we won. We found a way, however it got done. I think we're happy to be moving on to the next round [against Detroit]."
Finding a way to defeat the defending Western Conference champions Red Wings in a long series will be quite a challenge for the Sharks. The Red Wings of course have a lot of experience in making deep playoff runs - something that the Sharks lack.
"They're a really disciplined team. I think that's one of the biggest things. They've had good goaltending throughout the year when we've seen them. They're really structured and deep. They don't have really one guy who steps up all the time; they kind of get it done by committee. They got a lot of really good players and good defense. They're just kind of solid all the way through."
"A lot of it will be about what we do, how everybody steps up. Every series you need some depth and you need your role players to score a few goals, you need your top lines to perform. It's something that every game is really critical."
In recent playoff matchups strong-skating teams have been the bane of both Pavelski and the Sharks and while Sharks fans were certainly breathing sighs of relief after the Colorado series ended, Pavelski tells a different story about the mood in the Sharks dressing room.
"By no means was it a sigh of relief. I think we were happy, we were excited. A lot of work went into that series. You look at the first couple games; see the games we lost, putting 50 shots. We invested quite a bit physically. It paid off at the end."
"We didn't want a Game 7. That third period they were up 2-1. We wanted to get it done. We put on a little press. Dany [Heatley] made a great shot there to tie it up. We were able to find a way to win that game. I think it was more satisfying because it felt like we put the work in and we didn't really take any nights off. We didn't have a good game, then take a step back, kind of let them walk all over us. So that was encouraging there. That was one of the obstacles we wanted to overcome, was keep going, keep pressing, putting the hard work in, see where it gets us. You do it right, you're more than likely going to win most series."
A very cerebral and creative player Pavelski has always had to make up with what he lacks in speed with positioning, strong mechanics and a serious competitive streak. Still it is easy to get carried away, flush with such early success and lose sight of what got you to the playoffs in the first place. Pavelski seems on well prepared for avoiding such pitfalls.
"Well, just the atmosphere. It's unbelievable, the intensity. You feel it the night before games. You feel it watching all the games on TV. Sometimes you just got to step away and just kind of try to get away from it because you can get yourself overexcited. That's an easy thing to do."
"You step out on the ice, especially in the Shark Tank at the HP [Pavilion], the crowd [there]has been great. Game 5, we scored a couple goals, I think that's the loudest it's ever been in the building. It helps us. We like playing in there. The fans have been great for us. It's a good thing we have home ice. Hopefully we can use it a little better here in the next series."
The Sharks, who have done so well in the regular season over the last few years, have famously not done nearly as well in the playoffs. Almost as important to this franchise as playing in the Stanley Cup Final is finding a way of overcoming the reputation of an elite team were the will doesn't always seem to equal the skill.
"Well, that is our reputation right now. You got to work extremely hard to change your reputation once something happens. A lot of us in that room have only been to the second round. I mean, a few guys won Cups. We know that experience. But it's something; you always got to reprove yourself every year."
"So it's a new challenge for us. We haven't made it past the second round in four or five years, I think, not since I've been here. It's new territory. We got to understand it only gets harder and more important games. The mental side of the game I think is really important for us. Overcoming situations, we got to take it game by game."