Ceding a faceoff in the defensive zone against the Kings is akin to yielding set pieces to the best soccer teams in the world. The San Jose Sharks are well aware of Los Angeles' prowess, but they have something few teams possess to combat this situation.
Enter Joe Pavelski.
Center - SJS
Goals: 41 | Assists: 38 | Pts: 79
Shots: 225 | +/-: 23
Pavelski enjoyed a breakout season in 2013-14, setting career highs in goals (41) and points (79), perhaps meriting consideration for the Hart Trophy. He's always been one of the best two-way players in the sport, and Game 1 of this Western Conference First Round series was a prime example.
Seven times the Kings had a faceoff at the Sharks end of the ice at even strength with Pavelski waiting in the circle. Seven times, win or lose, Pavelski and his teammates prevented nary a shot attempt from Los Angeles before the next whistle or the next line change.
"It's nice. I think you want to be in all situations," Pavelski said of being San Jose's go-to guy in a key faceoff situation. "Six years ago when [this coaching staff] came, they said if you get your faceoffs up you can earn a lot more ice time just because of that. It was something we worked on and kept trying to get a little bit better."
Pavelski said his work in the faceoff circle started to become a clear strength during two years at the University of Wisconsin.
"Once you get to the NHL, it started getting harped on and you worked on it a lot more," he said. "I remember my rookie year, you thought you were good, but you really weren't even anywhere near being good. You just develop and learn guys tendencies, which help out too."
Pavelski has been one of the best players in the faceoff circle for several years. He's won more than 54 percent of his draws in each of the 82-game seasons since 2008-09 and he's been better than 56 percent in four of those five years.
Whether Pavelski is playing center or on the wing, Sharks coach Todd McLellan finds ways to put him on the ice for key faceoffs. When he plays on the top line, he and Joe Thornton, also one of the NHL's best, are able to take draws almost exclusively on their strong side of the ice.
Pavelski can also still be a weapon when his line isn't scheduled to be on the ice. McLellan put him out with the third line for a defensive zone draw three times in Game 1, and the result was the same as the four he took with the top line … a whole lot of nothing for the Kings.
"It's nice to have the puck. It's a real good thing to start with it," McLellan said. "I think a lot has been made about the two teams and their ability to forecheck and hem the other team in. Well, you can't start a forecheck without the puck, and faceoffs dictate that you at least have the chance to do that. Special teams faceoffs are real important. We were good on the power play, not so good on the penalty kill [in Game 1]. That has to get better. But it's really a key part of the game. It happens some nights 70 times. You can't overlook its importance."
Pavelski is much more than a faceoff specialist. He's earned a reputation for being one of the best forwards in the defensive zone. He's one of the most versatile players in the NHL, with his ability to succeed against tough competition regardless of where on the ice he starts his shift.
McLellan can deploy Pavelski as the center on his third line behind Thornton and Logan Couture, and few teams in the NHL can match up with that type of depth down the middle. When Tomas Hertl was injured earlier this season, Pavelski took his place on the wing next to Thornton and Brent Burns. Pavelski produced 41 goals, third-most in the NHL, and a team-high 79 points.
"He's an amazing player," Sharks forward James Sheppard said. "He kind of does it all, except for win the fastest lap contest. He's an amazing player. He has world-class skill and talent, but the way he works might be his best thing about him."
Veteran defenseman Scott Hannan said, "He's so good. He's a great leader. He understands the game. I think it is his hockey intelligence, and the way he reads the play. You could put him on defense and he'd probably be pretty good, although I don't how great he is at skating backwards. He understands how to play positionally. He's one of those guys that is able to slow down the game and you can see it when he’s out there."
Pavelski has 16 of his goals on the power play this season, which was second to Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals. Washington finished the regular season tied for first in extra-man efficiency; the Sharks were tied for 19th.
With the ability to play on the point or float in the same area Ovechkin likes to call home (somewhere in or near the left circle), Pavelski finds ways to get open and has of the League's best setup men looking for him in Thornton.
"[The Kings] have to be aware of what he does. For example, one of the areas he's most dangerous is on the power play," former NHL assistant coach Perry Pearn said. "You can't take that away, but what you can do is know what his tendencies are, try to push the puck to other areas of the ice so that it stays away from him. He's not maybe quite as dynamic as Ovechkin, but he's very effective. I don't think the Kings are going to be able to completely take him away on the power play.
"I think the fact that he gets moved around the lineup is one of the things that makes San Jose such an effective team. They're a better team right now to me because they're more balanced than they've been in the last three or four years. I think the third and fourth lines are just better when they're healthy than they’ve been. It gives them a little more flexibility with where they can put Pavelski."
There is a cluster of players with a strong case to join Pavelski in Las Vegas at the NHL Awards show should he be named a finalist for the Hart Trophy. Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby and Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf are likely in that group. So too are Philadelphia Flyers center Claude Giroux, Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews, Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar and a trio of Boston Bruins, center Patrice Bergeron, defenseman Zdeno Chara and goaltender Tuukka Rask.
Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle said Bergeron "would be a very good comparison" for Pavelski. The advent of advanced statistics and the ability to better quantify two-way play has raised the profiles of players like Bergeron and Pavelski and made it possible for guys who don't score 50 goals or rack up 100 points to be MVP candidates.
Pavelski has added the traditional offensive numbers this season as well, while still being a responsible, versatile weapon for McLellan to deploy in any important situation.
"He's pretty special," Boyle said. "He's dangerous offensively, but he's also so reliable in his own zone. It is faceoffs, blocking shots, penalty killing, a power-play guy, he can play first line, second line, third line, center or wing ... he's just a luxury most teams don't have."
And what about being mentioned for the Hart Trophy, and going from underrated to considered a top two-way player to being an MVP candidate?
"Obviously it's nice, but there's a lot of help in this room, [my] linemates," Pavelski said. "We've had a good season and that's part of the equation. It's cool, but this is the [part of the] season we all want to be playing, so you want to be talked about like that at this point."
Author: Corey Masisak | NHL.com Staff Writer