SAN JOSE, Calif. – Joe Pavelski's transformation as an NHL player can be illustrated by the evolution of his nicknames.
The undersized former seventh-round pick who came into league known as "Little Joe" in comparison to teammate Jumbo Joe Thornton turned into the Big Pavelski when he became a core player in San Jose and is now simply known as the captain.
In his first postseason wearing the "C," Pavelski is leading in actions and words. He entered Monday tied for the NHL lead with six goals this postseason, with many coming at key moments like the go-ahead score late in Game 2 on Sunday night that helped San Jose take a 2-0 series lead in the second round against Nashville.
"It's just an exciting time of the year," Pavelski said. "It's what you play for. You play all 82 games to set yourself up to get into this spot, and now that you're here you lay it on the line."
Pavelski has done that his whole career, with 32 career postseason goals, including six game winners. Pavelski has 10 points already this postseason and some of the team's biggest goals as San Jose has won six of its first seven postseason games.
The go-ahead goal with 2:40 remaining in Game 2 against the Predators was just the latest example. Pavelski also scored the game-winner in the third period of the first round opener against Los Angeles, opened the scoring in Game 2 and scored the key insurance goal in the Game 5 clincher in Los Angeles.
Most of those goals have come from right near the net where Pavelski's superior hand-eye coordination makes him one of the best in the league at deflecting shots and pouncing on rebounds like he did against the Predators on Sunday.
"He gets to the right areas," teammate Tommy Wingels said. "Guys in this league score goals different ways. The majority of Pav's goals, some are real nice highlight reels but a lot of them are in the dirty areas. He's not the biggest of guys or the fastest of guys but he finds a way to get in those areas. That's tough to do. He's so good at it. It's something other guys can take a page out of his book and try to emulate."
Pavelski has far exceeded expectations as a seventh-round pick in 2003. He is third in the NHL in goals over the past five seasons with 163 and is one of the most versatile players in the league.
He is capable of playing on the wing or at center, killing penalties or on the power play, providing a key goal or shutting down the opposition's top line. He does it all despite standing just 5-foot-11 and lacking elite skating speed.
"All he cares about is winning," coach Peter DeBoer said. "There's not a selfish bone in his body as far as his own personal numbers or agenda. It's all about winning. Where do you find guys that get 100 points and block shots and kill penalties and win faceoffs and go to the dirty areas of the ice? You can count on one hand the number of guys in the league that do that."
Pavelski has been called on to do even more the past two seasons for the Sharks. After San Jose blew a 3-0 series lead to lose a first-round series to Los Angeles in 2014, Thornton was stripped of his captaincy in the offseason.
The Sharks rotated the leadership last season with Pavelski one of four players wearing an "A'' as alternate. But he quickly emerged as the leader and face of the franchise dealing with the media and becoming more vocal with his teammates.
So when DeBoer took over as coach this season he promoted Pavelski to the captaincy and the Sharks rebounded from missing the playoffs in 2015 to making the second round for just the second time since 2011.
"Pav is a lead-by-example kind of guy," said defenseman Paul Martin, in his first year in San Jose. "He goes out and works hard every day. He's not the biggest guy, but he's always physical and does the little things. It's easy for the top-line players to take those shortcuts but he gives that effort when they have the puck with a chance to score. If something needs to be said, he'll say it."