THN in Sochi: Pavelski a not-so-secret weapon for USA

Joe Pavelski is accustomed to coming out from the shadows of others. He’s doing it again, centering USA’s most dangerous line between Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk at the Sochi Olympics.

SOCHI – How good has Joe Pavelski been between Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk for Team USA? So good that some of the yahoos who call into sports radio stations are lobbying for the Toronto Maple Leafs to go out and get Pavelski in a trade from the San Jose Sharks.

Yeah, like Sharks GM Doug Wilson is going to do that. No, Gino from Woodbridge, Tyler Bozak and a second-round pick is not going to get it done. Plus, Pavelski is pretty happy where he is, both in the NHL and in these Olympics.

“I don’t know what I think of that,” Pavelski said. “I really like San Jose. We’re in a good spot. Good team. Good players.”

Kessel has been the undisputed star of the American team and leads the tournament in scoring with four goals and seven points entering Wednesday’s quarterfinal games, but at least some of his success has to be attributed to Pavelski. Like every team in the tournament, some of USA’s big offensive stars have struggled – paging Mr. Patrick Kane – but Pavelski has found a unique and very quick chemistry with Maple Leaf teammates Kessel and van Riemsdyk. Pavelski claims he’s basically reading off the connection Kessel and van Riemsdyk already have from playing together with the Leafs, but he also has a skill set based on speed and passing ability that fits in well with his linemates.

Parise, who is the team’s captain, acknowledged Pavelski’s and his linemates’ contributions. “We’re creating a lot,” Parise said, “or I should say one line is creating a lot off the rush.”

And Pavelski is in a familiar position. Much of USA’s offense was expected to come from the likes of Kane and Zach Parise, but the Americans have been riding the Pavelski line for much of the tournament. It’s much the same in San Jose, where players such as Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau receive much of the attention, while Pavelski goes along his merry way leading the team in goals with 29 and sitting just two points behind Thornton.

But Pavelski is accustomed to flying under the radar. He wasn’t even taken in his draft year of 2002 and went 205th overall the next year, making him by far the lowest player selected on the American team. But after winning an NCAA title in Wisconsin with future NHLers Tom Gilbert, Adam Burish, Jake Dowell, Davis Drewiske, Jack Skille and Brian Elliott, Pavelski spent just 16 games in the minors before making the jump to the Sharks and has been a fixture on the roster ever since.

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From not being drafted to playing for the Olympic team is quite a leap for Pavelski, who brings to the game as much of a high hockey IQ as he does speed and skill. USA coach Dan Bylsma acknowledged that most of the teams here are playing a 1-4 system and clogging up the middle of the ice, leaving the rest of the less dangerous ice open. As a result, players who attack right up the middle are getting frustrated. That’s where Pavelski and Kessel, who are both quick and crafty, are finding a way to break through.

“Looking at our roster, he’s one of the smarter, more intelligent players that we have,” Bylsma said of Pavelski. “And he combines that with a smart skill set as well. It’s not just intelligence. He’s got a skill set and to be able to play with a guy like Phil and knowing when to get him the puck…they’ve been pretty dynamic through our first three games.”

It might come as a surprise that Pavelski thinks he and his linemates are capable of playing even better and being more dynamic. It’s something Bylsma has stressed of late with his team.

“I think we’ve managed the puck pretty well through the neutral zone,” he said. “There are some areas where we could be better. I think we can play a little faster, get in on the forecheck a little more aggressively and come out of our zone a little more and kind of turn it up.”

If that happens, opponents of the Americans had better be on their toes.