Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec is always looking ahead to the next test.
A goals against average in the top 10 (2.33, ninth) and a save percentage in the top three (.930, second) in the league helps.
But the 23-year-old from Kladno, in the Czech Republic — best known in hockey circles as the home town of Jaromir Jagr, and in Thrashers circles as the home of former Thrasher defenseman Franktisek Kaberle and goaltender Milan Hnilicka — would be a candidate for the Thrashers' Mr. Congeniality even if his numbers weren't as gaudy as they are.
"He's a super nice kid," said Thrashers back-up goalie Chris Mason. "I think the world of him. He's a great talent and he's a really good team guy. He's definitely not one of those guys that walk around with a big head. He's very humble and just a great guy to have on your team."
While he has made plenty of friends, his best friend, figuratively speaking, may be his short memory, something that’s a close colleague to just about every successful goaltender.
"You let in a bad goal or you have a bad game, you have to forget. You have to focus for the next game," said Pavelec, Atlanta's second-round pick in 2005 (41st overall), who spent most of the first two professional seasons and almost half of last season, in the American Hockey League with the Chicago Wolves.. "The season here and the season [in Chicago], it's almost 82 games. So one game doesn't make a season. If you have a bad game or you give up a bad goal, just put it behind you and look forward."
The ability to put things behind him when he’s had trouble keeping the puck in front of him explains Pavelec’s ability to bounce back from Friday night, when he was chased after giving up five goals on 24 shots in 34:05 by the offensively challenged Toronto Maple Leafs (their 2.55 goals per game are tied for 22nd in the NHL) and, less than 48 hours later, coming back and helping Atlanta earn a point in Carolina against the Hurricanes, whose 2.88 GPG is tied for 10th.
Neither a 19-save nightmare nor a 30-save day is hardly the biggest adversity Pavelec has faced this season. He’s seen a bigger and scarier situation.
It came just 2:25 into the season, when the 6-3, 220-pound netminder, went from standing and watching the Thrashers and Capitals prepare for a faceoff to lying flat on his back, unconscious. He passed out then fell backward and hit his head on the ice.
"I didn't feel anything before. It just came so quick, right away," he said. "It's the same thing, I put it behind me and I'm just looking forward. It happened to me. I'm lucky I don't have to do anything. I don't have to go to the hospital. I don't have to go see a doctor. I can do everything that I did before. Put it behind and look forward."
Again, his best friend, his short memory, was by his side, and the incident, which apparently was a fainting spell — just one done in front of 15,596 people, and television cameras — is behind him.
That mystery solved, Pavelec became a mystery, as he was almost unbeatable in net. In November went 7-4 but with a 1.55 goals against average and a .951 save percentage. From Nov. 19 through the 30th, he set a franchise record, winning six straight games and , in that run, which fittingly started with a 5-0 shutout of Washington at Philips Arena, he stopped 183 of 188 shots (a .973 save percentage), at one point stopping 97 of 99, and had a scoreless streak of 140:04.
"It wasn't just about me. It was about the team. The team played great," said Pavelec of his streak. "We blocked a lot of shots, we had a great PK, we scored goals at the right time.”
He’s remained solid and enters Friday's game against Philadelphia having gone 14-5-3 in his last 22 appearances. His 15 wins on the season are already a career-high. He’s confident and comfortable when he takes the ice.
"If you win games, your confidence goes high and the puck seems like a beachball," he said. "When you're in the game, you feel like you're going to stop everything. It's fun to go to practice and play the game, win the game and practice again. We are close to first place (four points back following Sunday's OT loss) so it's still fun.”
His teammates believe in Pavelec going forward.
"He gives us that confidence you need to just play," said captain Andrew Ladd. "You're not worried about making mistakes, meaning you take some chances and you know he's going to be there to come up with a big save.
"Not that you want to rely on him TOO much," Ladd added with a laugh. "But he's been sensational for us. He's given us a chance to win every night. To be a good team in this league you need great goaltending and he's definitely given us that."
"He's been huge. He and Mason," agreed center Bryan Little. "There have been games we probably didn't deserve to win and they won the game for us. When you have a goalie like that it definitely helps in the long run."
Pavelec knows long runs and long playoff runs as he led the Wolves to the 2008 Calder Cup, becoming just the third goalie in AHL history to win 16 game in a single postseason, while putting up a 2.34 GAA with a .921 save percentage.
He'll actually reach back into his memories of that run as he tries to backstop the Thrashers into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Atlanta sits in seventh place but are three points out fifth — the ninth-place Hurricanes are five points back — despite having lost seven of 10.
"The division is very tight but right now we're not playing the hockey we want to play," he said. "We have to come back to our hockey because I think it's all about us. Just focus on our team. For me, I just focus on my play. We have to start playing our hockey and everything is going to be okay. We can beat everybody. We need to settle down a little bit. We have to start playing our hockey again."
Everything else is so yesterday.