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Fully recovered, Pavelec is fueling Thrashers' surge

by John Manasso
DULUTH, Ga. --  For most of the Atlanta Thrashers, the NHL season started on Oct. 8.

For goalie Ondrej Pavelec, it didn't really start in earnest until 22 days later. Almost a month after he completed his first start, he's gathering steam to the point where his statistics rank him among the League's top goalies -- he entered the week third in the League with a 1.64 goals-against average and .949 save percentage. He's allowed three goals in his last five games, including a pair of shutouts.

His strong play also earned him NHL First Star of the Week honors. In wins against the Red Wings, Canadiens and Bruins, he stopped 97 of 99 shots, allowed one goal each in two games and registered a shutout.

The unanticipated delay to Pavelec's season came because of his well-publicized fainting spell two minutes into the season opener. It left him with a concussion, along with the need for him to be hospitalized for several days until doctors determined the cause of the incident.

But now the 23-year-old Czech says that when the puck drops, his fainting spell is the furthest thing from his mind.

"It's completely out of my mind," Pavelec said of the fainting spell. "It's completely behind me. I know it can come back, possibly, but they tell me many times it's never coming back. I believe the doctors and I do everything they said. ... But, like you said, you never know. But I never think about it in the

"I got a lot of things to think about during the game and I focus on my play."

Drafted with the 41st pick of the 2005 Entry Draft, Pavelec's status as a prospect began to skyrocket during his days with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he won the league's rookie of the year and defensive player of the year awards, and the trophy for best goals-against average, named for Jacques Plante, in 2006. He played 19 games in 2007-08 and 2008-09 for the Thrashers, losing his rookie status for last season when he went 14-18-7 with a .906 save percentage and 3.29 GAA.

When he finally earned a full-time spot on the team last season -- mostly owing to a long-term back injury to since-traded starter Kari Lehtonen -- Pavelec started well, but his confidence wavered near midseason. In two games at Boston a week apart, Dec. 23 and Dec. 30, then-coach John Anderson pulled him after allowing three goals in each before Pavelec could get out of the first period. Pavelec talked during the offseason about how that quick hook affected him negatively .

New coach Craig Ramsay, who was hired this summer, twice has pulled Chris Mason -- but not Pavelec -- in an effort to wake up the team.

"I know last year was kind of -- we were disappointed a little bit about it because I got pulled … last year in Boston," Pavelec said. "It's not the way you want to play. Like I said, it happened. ... I got pulled twice in a row in Boston. But it's a coach's decision and nothing really you can do. If he wants to pull you, he's going to do that and if he wants to do something to wake up the team, he's going to do that.

"It depends on the situation. But, again, Johnny (Anderson) was in the NHL for two years, that said, as a (head) coach, and Rammer is in the League for a while -- a while -- so he probably knows how things work. Like I said, hopefully I never get pulled. You cannot give him the reason to do that. If you're going to play well you're going to stay in the net."

Ramsay explained his theory on pulling goalies as not wanting "to hang a goalie out to dry," and that he prefers to allow a goalie to complete a period before making a change.

"You want to give a goalie his opportunities to fight through it and face adversity," he said. "I've pulled a goalie a couple of times, but don't like to do it too quickly. Every once in a while you have a feeling your team is asleep. Pulling a goalie is less about them than about, 'Hey, wake up.' "

After earning a second straight win Sunday, 2-1 against the New York Islanders -- he had allowed just one goal in two starts and gave up just one to the high-powered Wings -- Pavelec mentioned that his work with new Thrashers goaltending consultant Clint Malarchuk "is working."

Pavelec said Malarchuk, a former NHL goaltender, is a good teacher who counsels him on a lot of detail-oriented work. During intermissions, Malarchuk comes down from his perch in the press box and talks with Pavelec about the previous period and basically gets him to relax and stay calm.

Malarchuk said his strategy with Pavelec has been to get the goalie to challenge shooters more with his 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame rather than just sit back in his net. At the same time, he wants Pavelec to be patient. Malarchuk, who has worked with Roberto Luongo and Pascal Leclaire in some of their best seasons, said right now Pavelec seems to be doing those things somewhat -- but he would like to see him do even more.

"I think he's challenging very well," said Malarchuk, who won at least 24 games twice in his NHL career. "He's playing a little bit further out of his crease and he's playing with a lot of confidence. He's being very patient with the play. He's letting the play come to him and reacting to it rather than being a little overanxious. He's just doing a lot of good things that I think are the root of his game."

Ramsay has praised Pavelec for his ability to look through traffic and find pucks. Malarchuk said that is evidence of the intensity of Pavelec, who is very low-key off the ice.

"He's a battler," Malarchuk said. "His intensity is from working hard in practicing, but like a lot of great goalies, he's able to ramp it up another couple of notches in games. With games there is more traffic, things happen quicker and he battles through that. If he doesn't see a puck, he's looking for it. He's down on his knees in traffic, trying to look over shoulders. He doesn't just sit there and hope it hits him. He's battling for vision."

At the quarter point of the season, Atlanta is rounding in form. With 27 points entering the week the Thrashers are seventh in the Eastern Conference. Mason played well in Pavelec's absence, but it's arguable that the Thrashers might have won a few more games if they did not have to overwork Mason earlier. After all, the team's plan was to let Pavelec grow into the No. 1 role, as he is doing now.

Pavelec said he didn't think his 10 days off hurt him, but Malarchuk said he thinks it takes a few games for a goalie to get his timing back.

"You've got to remember: With goaltenders, (timing) is an even bigger issue because you have to react to a puck and if you react too slow or too fast or that timing isn't on, usually it results in a goal," Malarchuk said.

Regardless, Malarchuk said Pavelec looked comfortable in his first game back and that he's gotten better in every game since. Now, his confidence and his stinginess in net is starting to get contagious.

"He's given that kind of confidence that if we make a mistake, he can save the day," Ramsay said, "and then we can keep trying to play that aggressive game, because if you start trying to be perfect then we won't play -- and we don't want to be perfect; well, I shouldn't say that, I guess I'd love to be perfect but it's not likely to happen -- you need to have that confidence and he's certainly given that to us."
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