The 2010-11 season has been one of ups and downs for Atlanta Thrashers goaltender Ondrej Pavelec. It started with a major scare on opening night, was marked by stretches of outstanding clutch goaltending and untimely letdowns, but has culminated in an outstanding run at the World Championships in Slovakia.
Pavelec was perfect in a 29-save, 4-0 victory against Team USA in the quarterfinals on Thursday that propelled the defending champion Czech Republic into the semifinals. The 23-year-old is a big reason why the Czechs are undefeated through their first seven games. Pavelec has started six of the seven games, posting a pair of shutouts, a 1.17 goals against average and a .955 save percentage in 360 minutes.
"He has given our team a lot of confidence," former NHL defenseman Lukas Krajicek said. "We know if there's a mistake, he'll make most the saves. He's been tremendous, and that helps us play better."
The first 30 minutes of the Czech-USA game were evenly played. With the game scoreless in the first period, Pavelec made a pair of good stops to deny the Americans – including one on Craig Smith from point-blank range. He also benefited from a little good luck when a puck deflected off teammate Marek Zidlicky's skate and ticked off the post rather than going into the net. Later in the game, Pavelec helped his team stop USA on a 5-on-3 power play and stopped James van Riemsdyk on a bang-bang shot off a faceoff that developed similarly to two plays in which the Philadelphia Flyers' forward scored goals during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
A year ago, Tomas Vokoun stole the show at the tournament, backstopping the Czechs to a surprise gold medal in an upset over a stacked Russian team in the gold medal game. This time around, the Czechs have been outstanding in virtually every aspect of the game.
Pavelec's goaltending has been one of the key elements, but the team has also played solid defense and enjoys considerable scoring talent with the likes of Tomas Plekanec, Patrik Elias and longtime NHL superstar Jaromir Jagr (who had a hat trick against the U.S.) leading the way.
"We have very good leadership and coaching on our team," Pavelec told Czech news outlet Denik after the Czechs defeated Slovakia in the Qualification Round. "As a goaltender, the biggest thing you hope for is to be able to see the shots, and our team has been doing that."
Pavelec was a backup for the Czechs at the 2010 Olympics and is making the most of his opportunity to be a starter for the national team. There is no doubt who will be in goal when the Czechs play their semifinal game.
"I feel the confidence the team has in me, and that's also very important," the Kladno native told his home press.
In many ways, Pavelec is grateful simply to be alive and playing hockey right now. On the opening night of the 2010-11 regular season, he collapsed on the ice early in the first period of the Thrashers' game against the Washington Capitals. With play in the Caps' zone, there was a whistle at the 2:25 mark of the first period. Pavelec tapped his stick on the ice, looked toward the Atlanta bench and fell over backward. His teammates, trainers and medical personnel responded quickly and a stretcher was brought onto the ice. Rescue personnel worked on him before he was wheeled off a waiting ambulance and rushed to the hospital.
Pavelec soon regained consciousness and the good news arrived quickly that he was in stable condition at the hospital. A battery of subsequent tests revealed no serious health problems, apart from the fact that he sustained a concussion from hitting the back of his head on the ice when he collapsed. There have been no problems since then. In the weeks following the scare, precautions were taken to monitor Pavelec closely, even after he was given a clean bill of health.
Following his return on Oct. 30, the Thrashers went to be one of the NHL's biggest surprises in the first half, even jumping over the Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning to occupy first place in the Southeast Division at one point in January. Thrashers' coach Craig Ramsay was quick to credit the role that both Pavelec and veteran Chris Mason played in the team's first-half success.
"There were a few games that Ondrej and Chris stole for us before the All-Star break," Ramsay said. "There were games where we got outshot and outchanced or had some breakdowns early in the game, and our goalies were there for us."
The Thrashers were unable to sustain their strong start, fading from the playoff picture in the second half. Pavelec suffered from bouts of inconsistency -- hardly unusual for a young goaltender seeing his first extensive action in the NHL. But there were also some latter season highlights, including a stellar effort in outplaying the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist on Feb. 11 and a 29-save shutout against the playoff-bound Rangers in the next-to-last game of the regular season.
"This season went all right for me, but I think things can be better," Pavelec told Denik. "It would be incredible to win the gold at the World Championships. We have to take things one game at a time, of course, but I think we can do it."