Goalie's lights-out play fuels Thrashers' big move

by | CBSSports.com Staff Writer

It wasn't exactly the kind of YouTube moment that Ondrej Pavelec would have chosen for himself.

Truth be told, the Atlanta Thrashers goaltender doesn't even remember it although the video images of what happened minutes into the season will likely serve as a permanent, if not necessarily appreciated, reminder of how the 23-year-old Czech native became the biggest story of the NHL's new season at that moment. Unfortunately, it wasn't because his perennially bottom-feeding Thrashers were in the process of turning back the defending Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals.

That part almost got lost in the shuffle because Pavelec wasn't around to see the end result. He had collapsed for no apparent reason behind the play less than three minutes into the game, a gasp-inducing moment that required him to be carried off on a stretcher.

As it turned out, the frightening incident was the result of Pavelec having fainted and suffering a concussion from falling and hitting his head. But no one knew it at the moment because that conclusion took doctors several days and a battery of tests on his brain and heart to reach.

"I'll tell you this much, I never want to see the inside of a hospital again," Pavelec said with a slight smile in an interview. "That really wasn't any fun having to deal with everything until we knew for sure. But the good thing is that now I can put it all behind me and look forward to playing games.

"But for sure it was a scary moment, not only for me but for my family. It was fortunate that they didn't see it live and that I was already in the hospital and okay when they found out. Thankfully it all worked out and I'm lucky because I've been totally cleared medically and I can do everything I did before."

These days, Pavelec is actually doing even more than he ever has for the Thrashers since joining them late in the 2007-08 season -- he's turning into one the league's top goaltenders. Pavelec returned to the lineup Oct. 30 and has become one of the biggest reasons Atlanta is in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race and still in striking distance of the division crown in the much-improved Southeast Division.

"Pav's been very strong for us," coach Craig Ramsey said. "He really had a very good training camp and it's unfortunate what he had to go through, but when he came back, he really got back into the flow very quickly."

A second-round draft choice in 2005, Pavelec had a couple of cups of coffee before arriving to stay in Atlanta last season when he split the duties with veteran Johan Hedberg. The youngster had several stretches of inconsistent play, but mixed in enough flashes of brilliance to make Atlanta comfortable enough to trade away their often-injured but presumed franchise goalie Kari Lehtonen and to let Hedberg leave as a free agent.

The Thrashers did sign veteran Chris Mason during the offseason as insurance, but the clear message from the organization was that Pavelec was its goalie of the future and the No. 1 job this season was his to lose. He just didn't take it that way.

"I didn't think like that, absolutely not," Pavelec said. "For sure everybody wants to play and you want to be that guy, but Mason is a great goalie and it's always up to how you're going to play. I worked hard in the summer to prepare, but all you can do is work hard and do your best."

So far so good. In fact, Pavelec has played so well his effort has created a lively debate in Atlanta about whether he or defenseman Dustin Byfuglien is the MVP so far of the revamped and vastly improved Thrashers.

"I think it probably helped Pav to know he was going to get a big opportunity to play," defenseman Ron Hainsey said. "For some guys you have, when you're clearly going to get the chance to be the No. 1 guy it gives you a big boost of confidence and at the same time, makes everyone else a little less afraid to make mistakes, which obviously helps.

"The thing is he's always had this kind of game. Now he's letting it take over and he's playing at an all-star level for us."

The stats certainly bear that out. Pavelec posted his career-high 15th win Wednesday night in Florida with a 33-save effort, and in his last 20 starts, he has a 14-4-2 record and two shutouts. Meanwhile his .936 save percentage is the second best in the league, and his 2.14 goals-against average has him tied for third.

"I don't look at the numbers because it's not about me, it's about the way the team is playing in front of me," Pavelec said. "Guys are blocking shots and playing very good defense and getting big goals.

"I'm just doing my part. That's what I feel good about."


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