Hockey is all about lines.
For lack of a better way to label them, they are usually numbered. The number one line is full of top players, snipers, goal scorers, and is usually playing against the "grinder" line of the other team, the one that checks best and slows down top players.
So, what does a team do when their opponent's "second" line is the highest scoring one?
The Red Wings are faced with just that dilemma. Formerly known as "little" Joe, Joe Pavelski
, AKA "The Big Pavelski", now centers perhaps the dominant line in this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The star player for the USA in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Pavelski raised his game a couple of notches after the quadrennial competition, and has fully hit his stride in the playoffs. Pavelski scored the Sharks first goal Sunday on a long shot from the top of the slot on the power play, his third power play goal against the Red Wings.
He's not just a goal scorer, though. On his next shift, just 91 seconds after scoring, he broke out of the neutral zone and sprinted down the left side of the ice, stopping in the circle. He then threaded one of the best passes in memory to Ryane Clowe
, who scored between his legs, going five-hole on Jimmy Anderson.
"Clowe made that play, really, winning the battle to hold onto the puck and make the shot," said a modest Pavelski.
"He's doing all right out there," said a smiling Clowe after the game. ."He's playing out of his skin right now. He could have had a couple more tonight besides those two. the goal I scored, he made a nice play, beat the guy to the puck.
"I think he was hungry coming into these playoffs, and he is stepping up for sure."
The excitement being created by Pavelski is to the point that the fans begin roaring as soon as he gets possession of the puck with any open ice around him.
"It's great to see," said Heatley, brought in this year to be the team's sniper. "Joe is such a hard worker, he comes to the rink every day really committed (to what we are doing). It's fun to see when guys are hot, they go to the right spots and make great shots. He's been our best guy."
With a 13-for-16 performance in the faceoff circle, Pavelski contributed enormously to a team concept that starts with puck possession -- ever more important against a Detroit team that stresses the same thing.
"It's as important for us to HAVE the puck as it is for us not to let THEM have it," said Sharks coach Todd McLellan. "(Detroit) is dangerous off the faceoff, they get a lot of motion going, so we have to continue to bear down in the faceoff circle and do our best to win and maintain possession. It sets up our game."
Manny Malhotra put it succinctly. "The whole playoffs, he's been our engine, making things happen. He's lifting the team on his back."
Malhotra, who led the NHL in faceoff win percentage during the season, appreciated Pavs' effort Sunday. "It's a daily thing in practice, we work with one another about how to attack certain guys, so we teach each other. It obviously paid off tonight. Especially going head-to-head with Detroit, we realize the circle is a critical point in this series."
The Wisconsin native is on the primary power play line, along with Patrick Marleau
, Joe Thornton
, Dany Heatley and Dan Boyle
. He and Boyle normally are on the point.
Pavelski's +7 rating leads the Sharks, and is among the highest in the playoffs this year, and he has now scored a goal in five consecutive games, tying Vancouver's Mikael Samuelsson.
With 4:40 gone in the third period, Pavelski potted his fourth power play goal against the Red Wings in 204 minutes of hockey. On a 5-on-3 advantage, he was in the crease and there to jam home the game-tying goal off a rebound of an attempt by Heatley in the crease.
"He's a huge part of our success right now," said defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic
, "He's a young guy who you wouldn't expect to step up and lead the team."
That gave him 14 points in the playoffs, second only to Sidney Crosby. His nine goals give him the NHL post-season lead. And if it seemed like he was on the ice all night, taking all the shots, that's not far from the truth -- he took 11 of San Jose's 45 shots while racking up 22:44 of ice time on 28 shifts.
The last player to have three straight multi-goal playoff games did it in 1992, Mario Lemieux. Pavelski is just the third in NHL history to do it.
"I'm not even going to think about that," Pavelski said when informed of the feat. "That stats, it's up to you guys (the media). We've got a lot more to focus on than that."
"Obviously, Pavs is in the zone right now," said Sharks coach Todd McLellan. "Anything he touches seems to go in the net, and lots of shots on goal. He feels very comfortable out there, but he earns that right, working hard on every shift. He's diligent defensively. Pavs is the catalyst right now."