Sunday, June 12, 2016

Joe Pavelski keeps on adding to his unusual talents

By Larry Wigge

When is a throwaway empty-net goal a reward for a guy who has everything?

When that guy is Joe Pavelski and he has scored zero points in the first four-plus games of the Stanley Cup finals, after leading the NHL in goals in the playoffs with 13.

This is the same superstar who in Game 7 of the St. Louis series, we were marveling at all the ways this little guy Joe Pavelski normally scores goals in so many ways -- slap shots, wrist shots, wraparounds, on breakways and on ... tip-ins.

And we all know that this go-forward-and-take-no-prisoners approach that got him to the NHL won't stop because of the pedigree he's established in big games leading up to this year's playoffs.

Unlike Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos, known for scoring in one or two prominent ways, Pavelski scores in bunches every which way.

A look at Pavelski's tally of 13 post-season goals reveals the variety: six slapshots, two tips, two wrist shots, one wraparound, one backhand and one snapshot.

It should be pointed out that only Ovechkin has more goals since 2013-14 than Pavelski 154 goals over the last three season to 116 -- 41, 37 and 38 -- than Pavelski.

Yet ... here we were in the last minute of Game 5 talking about Pavelski being scoreless in the series against Pittsburgh.

Let's take you back to what St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock called the killer goal for the Blues with 1:27 left in the second period of a game tied 3-3.

"That third goal was the killer," Hitchcock said after the 6-3 loss.

"Sixteen seconds into the third period, he takes the juice right out of us right away," said St. Louis goalie Jake Allen. "He's one of the best in the league in front of the net and he has been for the last five or six years. He gets his stick on everything. It was one of those ones where you just hope it hits you."

Pavelski's hand-eye coordination is perhaps second to none in today's NHL. It was once Detroit's Tomas Holmstrom who was the best in the NHL at deflecting shots. Now Pavelski is the Duke of Deflections, the Ruler of Redirection.

"He's practiced that for years," Joe Thornton said of Pavelski's tip-in prowess. "If you put work in like he does, like tipping pucks, knowing his body and where to put his stick, results happen like that all the time. We're used to seeing that so much. He just works so hard in practice on those little things. He and Brent Burns, those two are always working together. It's beautiful to watch."

"He's good with that. He's one of the best players in the world and he’s good at a lot of things in this game,” Sharks forward Logan Couture said. “(Joe Thornton) finds him and finds exactly when Pavs is getting ready to shoot the puck and delivers it in a perfect spot. Usually it ends up in the back of the net. We’re lucky to have those guys.”

Also, ever the cerebral student, Pavelski remembered a mistake from an earlier opportunity when he had the puck in front of Allen and couldn’t bury it.

"Maybe took a little bit too much time, didn't make the right choice, didn't get a stick on it," he said. "You just keep working for those opportunities. I think I was a little fortunate it rolled, bounced a little bit. Catch a break with him leaning, it goes the other way. You need those."

Said Tomas Hertl, "He works on that almost every day. Every time he practices it, he never misses it. It's unbelievable. I've never seen before someone practice so hard on that. He's great. He scores almost every game on those goals. He's our leader. Again tonight, a winning goal."

It's a skill, yes, but one that is honed in only one fashion: workmanlike repetition. In the heat of summer in Wisconsin, during the dog days of the season in February and even now during the rare postseason practice days, Pavelski has worked on his tipping ability again and again and again. That's where Jake Allen got his first look at Pavelski -- Allen was there with Brian Elliot and Ben Bishop working out a goaltender's camp held in Madison, Wisc.

"It's incredible," Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer said of Pavelski's tipping ability. "You think back to some of the best scorers ever. His ability to get his stick on pucks in the offensive zone, in front of the net, different angles, is as good as anybody I've ever seen.

"But it's a great lesson. He works at it. He works at it every day. He gets Burnsy or one of the other D, gets them to fire 100, 200 pucks. I'll watch him from the boards with the other coaches. He'll get a piece of every single one. It's something that he has worked at.

"It's a great lesson for kids out there that want to play. You have to work at those things to become really good. He's got some God-given ability too. His biggest asset is he works at it."

The NHL scouts parading through Waterloo, Iowa, usually said the same thing about Pavelski.

"He can't skate, he's not big enough."

While intrigued by Pavelski, the Sharks didn't even use their first (of two) seventh-round picks to take him, opting instead for a French-Canadian forward who never played an NHL game. They instead chose him with the 205th pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.

"He's a finisher," Thornton explained. "Probably within that 10 to 15 foot range, he just knows what to do with the puck."

"There's certainly no one in the league better at scoring timely goals, finding quiet ice, playing under the radar," Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau said.

Said Nashville GM David Poile, "It's his persistence ... and he's getting better all the time. He was a little bit of an underdog. Not a high draft pick, not the biggest guy. You can pick apart and have things to say why he wasn't going to make it. But a lot of us would like a do-over again with that draft."

In that 2003 draft at Nashville, Pavelski was selected in featured several key NHL players chosen within the first two rounds that still play huge roles in the NHL to this day. Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf were selected by the Anaheim Ducks. Eric Staal went to the Carolina Hurricanes. Zach Parise to the New Jersey Devils. Players like Patrice Bergeron and Shea Weber fell to the second round.

But no one, except for the Sharks, had Pavelski on their radar. But despite several notable players selected well before him, Pavelski still finds himself well ahead of several players in production. Pavelski has the sixth-most goals at 252 in that draft class and he has the eight-most points with 273.

Pavelski is the very definition of an underdog hitting it big.

But his competitive zeal, which includes golf, baseball and hunting and fishing, has led to a standout NHL career that's lasted nine-plus seasons.

"I started watching the draft that year," Pavelski recalled. "But some friends came by my house ... and we played some baseball.

"It wasn't until I got home that I found out I was drafted by the Sharks."

His first feelings about being drafted were: "I was excited. Seventh round, I knew it was going to be a long road. I wasn't worried about that ..."

Like growing up.

When you talk about the size of the fight in the dog, Little Joe has a heart the size of the Pacific Ocean -- and that makes him man in motion and a man of action every year when the playoff season comes around.

Pavelski, you see, has the knack of winning over everyone eventually.

Big game, big player?

"He's just a hockey rat," Sharks GM Doug Wilson observed. "He's highly competitive, passionate and plays to win. He's in on every play at both ends of the rink, which is exactly what we look for -- players who can be used in all situations.

"It doesn't take long for you to see that he's a leader, a competitor. I remember going to see him at Madison (U. of Wisconsin) for the first time and it was clear to me that he was the heartbeat of that team."

Joe Pavelski learned about hockey by watching his dad, Mike, a wall paperer and painter in Plover play, as well as his older brother, Jerry, who is into home improvement. Mom, Sandy, works the books and runs the office for the company that the Pavelski's all work for.

"I don't know what it is about this game, but I've always loved to practice, loved to shoot pucks and loved to play in our driveway," he said, laughing at the fact that there was this Sharks mini-stick at the house. He didn't know who it belonged to. It was just there.

On his driveway, Joe tried moves like his favorites -- Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull and Steve Yzerman. He played for the Flames when he was really young. Later, it was the Blues, because he was enamored with Brett Hull's one-timer.

"I loved winners," Pavelski laughed. "I liked Detroit, Colorado -- they were always battling, always fun to watch. They would bring it every night, could connect the dots, pass, snap the puck around, score goals and win a championship. That's kind of fun. I grew up liking the Dallas Cowboys. I would jump on the bandwagon, I guess you could say. But there's something about winning that draws me to it."

Still, Pavelski knew that his dream of playing in the NHL was a long, long way off.

"It was always my size and strength," he said of the obstacles he had to overcome to get to this level. "When I got to the USHL, my goal was to get to college and get my education. But I also began to see players I was playing against making their way to the NHL. Same thing at the University of Wisconsin. That's when I began to say to myself, 'He's there. Can I do this?' "

"I always looked at those game, those tournaments as my Stanley Cup," he said, looking me straight in the eyes.

Serious. Confident without being cocky.

"Before I got here, I had been the go-to guy the last few years," he said. "It's funny but I think the more you play in big games the better you are going to get. Playing in those big-time moments, you take so much away and put it in your back pocket. Being on a winning team, knowing what it takes to win, knowing that nothing comes easy."

Said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves, "He may be one of the best pros I've ever seen because he plays to his strengths, works on his areas of improvement, and he's gotten better each and every year. Those six inches between his ears make up for any deficiency that he may have physically, and even then, he's working on those."

Pavelski added, "When you have to fight the obstacles and perceptions I have over the years, you learn to never give up."

Todd McLellan takes it one step further. "If I was part of some of those playoff office pools and drafts, he would be one of my picks."

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