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Winning Play: San Jose’s most valuable forward?

For my money, Joe Pavelski is the San Jose Sharks’ most valuable forward.

Despite his team-leading 31 goals, this isn’t a unanimous sentiment, by any means. For example, Evolving-Hockey’s WAR model tabs Evander Kane. Pavelski is their sixth-most valuable up front, trailing Kane, Joonas Donskoi, Timo Meier, Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl. In my mind, Couture or Hertl, in particular, also have strong arguments.

But Pavelski made his case with little big play after little big play, especially in the third period, in San Jose’s 3-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks.

Despite reports to the contrary, Pavelski (8) is far from being the most fleet of foot. But knowing where the puck is going often makes up for that deficiency.

In the first clip, Pavelski was bearing down on the forecheck. But instead of simply finishing his check on Derrick Pouliot (5), Pavelski peeled back, guessing Pouliot would go wall.

In the second clip, Alex Biega (55) was hoping to toss a breakout pass up the middle for Antoine Roussel (26). But there was Pavelski again, cagily spying on Biega.

A few seconds later, Pavelski would draw a slashing penalty on Pouliot.

It looked like Erik Karlsson (65) had delivered a suicide pass to Pavelski; Elias Pettersson (40) certainly broke on the pass like a ravenous cornerback.

But Pavelski, seeing Timo Meier (28) coming in stride from behind, turned his body and protected the puck from Pettersson, dropping the puck between his legs in a place where Meier could swoop in.

Instead of Vancouver forcing a turnover, San Jose enjoyed an easy exit.

“D-man got caught, skating over it. Bobbles it a little bit,” Pavelski said, of the Biega turnover that resulted in his game-winning goal. “I’m able to buy enough time to get in there and break it up.”

Besides straight hustle, Pavelski had the presence of mind to beeline straight to the net after turning over Biega. In contrast, Biega got up and covered nobody.

This was 200 feet of exemplary work by Pavelski.

First, his stick and just enough skating on the forecheck and in the neutral zone forced Nikolay Goldobin (77) to the outside lane.

As Goldobin entered the zone, he was met by Justin Braun (61), who was waiting for him in that outside lane. This was by design; Pavelski helped take the middle away from the skilled Russian.

Meanwhile, while Pavelski was trailing the play, he hadn’t forgotten about Goldobin. He was watching the Vancouver winger, guessing his next move, eventually identifying Bo Horvat (53) as the danger man.

After Braun cut Goldobin off, Goldobin curled back and tried to hit Horvat in the slot. You know who was waiting.

Goldobin instead opted to give it to Ben Hutton (27) at the point. But Pavelski wouldn’t have that either, getting in Hutton’s shooting lane.

Pavelski still wasn’t done with Goldobin. Watch Pavelski lazily putter along as Goldobin recovered the puck at center ice. But Pavelski knew what he was doing. The second that Goldobin betrayed his intent, Pavelski popped, jumping the pass.

Once again using his stick and just enough mobility, Pavelski made Brock Boeser’s (6) life miserable. With help from Kane (9), Pavelski forced Boeser into a less-than-optimal pass, which would lead to a high touch and a faceoff outside the zone. Hanging onto a one-goal lead, the Canucks goalie pulled, this was a huge play.

This was another wonderful Pavelski play, but in the second period. Couture pointed it out.

It started off with a terrific Karlsson defensive recovery. But look closely again at Couture, who doesn’t appear to be prepared for Pavelski’s pass.

“At first, I was going to drive the middle to open up the seam for Timo. But Pav yelled at me,” Couture explained. “Luckily, I brought my head up and saw the puck was coming to me. Saw Burnzie go. I was able to make a quick move and step around the goalie.”

Coaches always talk about being “hard to play against.”

In all three zones, in all situations, Pavelski is the portrait of that. There’s a reason why the 34-year-old continues to lead Sharks forwards in average time on ice. In fact, he’s the oldest forward in the NHL to lead his team’s forwards in usage.

“I thought Pav was outstanding tonight,” Peter DeBoer said.

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