SAN JOSE -- Joe Pavelski led the Sharks in scoring all season, so it should not be a shock that he's doing the same in San Jose's playoff series against the Los Angeles Kings.

Only two players in the NHL had more goals this season than the 41 racked up by Pavelski, the 29-year-old forward who is having a career year that featured his first three hat tricks. The one Sharks teammate who might be the least surprised by that accomplishment is his longtime friend, Adam Burish.

Burish also was Pavelski's linemate on Wisconsin's NCAA-title team in 2006, and the two join other Badger alums in Madison each summer to get into shape before training camp.

"He may tell you differently," Burish said, "but this summer he worked on scoring stuff a lot, a lot of tip stuff. It was all around the net stuff. And he was bouncing tennis balls and batting them against the wall. His hand-eye is incredible. He was just focused on finding ways to score."

Pavelski, whose previous high was 31 goals in 2011-12, offered a more general explanation for this year's success before the playoffs began.

"I think it's just the whole process of this being the eighth year and trying to get a little better each time, learning as you go, and playing with confidence and good players," he said.

Still, the currently injured Burish's look behind the scenes does mesh with coach Todd McLellan's assessment of what might be different in Pavelski's game.


Advertisement

"He's been really good around the net," McLellan said late in the regular season. "Not that he hasn't been in the past, but he's had a lot of his secondary chances, the tips, the deflections."

Pavelski's only playoff goal to go along with three assists wasn't one of the above, as he capped a three-on-none rush in the third period of Sunday's 7-2 rout that gave the Sharks at 2-0 series lead. But the fact that it came in a third-line role highlighted the big question facing McLellan in Game 3 of the series Tuesday night at the Staples Center and beyond:

Where do you slot Pavelski?

Keep him as a top-line left wing, where he scored the bulk of his 41 goals and 79 points alongside Joe Thornton and Brent Burns? Or move him down to third-line center and give San Jose the scoring depth that poses big problems for any NHL team?

"Pav's probably best spot is in the center ice position," McLellan said after Game 2. "I still believe that, but he scores 41 on the wing with Jumbo and Burnzie. It's hard to break that up."

Still, McLellan continued Sunday, it's all about giving the team its best chance to win.

"What was right for the team tonight was Pav playing in that three hole for a couple periods, and guess what? He got rewarded," the coach said. "When we get to L.A., he could very well be back up on that wing, and away we go."

McLellan has wrestled with the question since Dec. 19, when rookie Tomas Hertl suffered a knee injury in a game against the Kings. Hertl had been skating on the Thornton line, and Pavelski became the best fit as a replacement after others fell short.

Pavelski understandably has grown tired of fielding questions about what position he prefers and diplomatically points out he'll be working hard in either spot. Late in the season he acknowledged the benefits of developing chemistry with Thornton and Burns, but he also can spell out the benefits of moving to the third line.

"You get excited. You get new linemates there. You want to play good for them, too," he said Monday. "You want to try to create something."

Analysts might say that playing alongside Thornton -- one of the NHL's premier passers -- would turn anybody into an elite goal scorer, but the Sharks captain disagrees.

"No, that's not the case," he said. "He's a pretty good player out there. He's just very, very competitive. He never gives up on plays. He always seems to be around the puck."

The Sharks selected Pavelski in the seventh round of the 2003 draft when he was still in the USHL. His first NHL game and goal came Thanksgiving Day 2006, and his steady improvement since then earned him a five-year, $30 million contract extension last July.

His versatility also has helped make him a two-time Olympian for Team USA, and that same characteristic makes it a smooth transition for his teammates when Pavelski changes roles midgame.

"Joe's as positionally sound as any guy in the league," said Tommy Wingels, who had an assist on Pavelski's goal. "I know where he is, and he knows where I am. Joe's hockey instincts are as great as anyone in the league."

From McLellan's perspective, those instincts are still being honed in practice.

"He continues to work on tiny little pieces of his game," the coach said. "He picks pucks up in certain areas and does something with it, then all of a sudden you see it in the game, and you know that he's worked on that."

For more on the Sharks, see David Pollak's Working the Corners blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/sharks. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/PollakOnSharks.