DULUTH, Ga. – Ondrej Pavelec can’t explain how he has emerged from a fainting spell in Atlanta’s opener to become one of the NHL’s top goalies.
Whatever the reason, he just wants to help the Thrashers keep winning.
The Thrashers have won two straight and eight of nine, thanks in part to Pavelec, the 23-year-old Czech goalie who fainted early in the Oct. 8 opener, sustained a concussion and was sidelined for three weeks.
“I guess it wasn’t the nicest thing for him to do to his teammates, to pass out and for us not to know what was going on,” Thrashers defenceman Dustin Byfuglien said in jest Wednesday. “But, yeah, he woke up, and he’s been playing well. He’s been good for us.”
Was this some kind of cruel joke usually reserved for cartoons? A guy slams the back of his head against the ice, wins just one of his next seven decisions and then emerges in mid-November as a better goalie?
“It was a scary moment, for sure, but I was back on the ice in 10-14 days,” Pavelec said. “I don’t have any more problems, and that’s nice because you see all the time in sports where something like that happens and the guy doesn’t come back to play the sport they love.”
Pavelec (9-5-2) won’t say if he envisioned having the NHL’s second-best save percentage and goals-against average while he underwent weeks of physical testing and trips to a neurologist.
Instead, he prefers to look around the Atlanta locker-room at a young club that has embraced the methods of first-year coach Craig Ramsay:
—The Thrashers have the league’s best power-play percentage. Because the team lacks an elite scoring centre or forward, Ramsay uses a system that relies heavily on Byfuglien, the league’s No. 1 scoring defenceman, at the point, and Tobias Enstrom, the NHL’s No. 4 scoring defenceman, on the wing.
—Atlanta’s defence is second in takeaways and third in blocked shots, but those numbers come at the expense of the league’s highest shots-against total.
—The Thrashers compensate for a low percentage in killing penalties by serving an average of just 10.6 minutes per game in the box.
But these storylines seem to pale in comparison to Pavelec’s.
Other than Kari Lehtonen, a bust as the No. 2 overall draft pick of 2002, Pavelec is the highest goalie selected in the Thrashers’ first 10 seasons. Before this recent streak, however, the second-round pick in 2005 never put together a long stretch of success.
Enter Ramsay, who teaches a defence that plays to Pavelec’s strengths.
“We try to eliminate the middle, when we’re playing well, so he’s facing more shots on angle that he can handle,” Ramsay said. “I think we can help him sort out his positioning based on how we play, and after that, it’s up to him and how hard he wants to battle. Right now, we’re seeing tremendous battles.”
Ramsay and his staff insist on high awareness from skaters to emphasize blocking shots over tight coverage. It worked to perfection last week at Washington. The Thrashers blocked 20 shots, 16 by defenceman, in a 3-1 victory.
“There’s situations where we did play it differently in the past,” defenceman Ron Hainsey said. “We’d kind of hold the guy off to the side of the net. Now we’re maybe more so blocking that play, and as a team we’ve done a tremendous job on blocking shots at the point. There’s a big focus on that.”
Pavelec’s save percentage (.947) is 45 points higher and his goals-against average (1.71) is 1.62 lower than the numbers he produced in his first 61 career NHL games.
He dismisses such comparisons, though, with 54 games left on the regular-season schedule.
“I never look at stats, but the guys remind of it before the game when they see it on TV,” Pavelec said. “For me, it’s important to get the two points and get the win. I think if you look at the stats, the most important thing is how many wins you’ve got.”
Ramsay isn’t sure when Pavelec will get a rest, but with three road games following Friday’s home matchup with Colorado, Chris Mason is likely tostart either Saturday at the New York Islanders or Monday at Ottawa before the Thrashers visit Southeast Division rival Tampa Bay next Wednesday.
Regardless, Ramsay likes what he sees from Pavelec. Atlanta’s No. 1 goalie is flashing some athleticism, too. In Monday’s overtime win over Nashville, Pavelec robbed Predators centre Cal O’Reilly by blocking a tip-in attempt with his left skate as he lay backward in the crease.
“He feels good about himself, but I think he and everybody else are more comfortable with how we play,” Ramsay said. “Then you tend to react knowing pucks are going certain places and knowing defencemen are reacting in a certain way.”