By Sean Hartnett
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Ondrej Pavelec was unsure of his NHL future after a knee injury cut short his 2016-17 campaign. The 30-year-old goaltender began last season with the Manitoba Moose, appearing in 18 AHL games before he was recalled by the Winnipeg Jets. He underperformed to an .888 save percentage in eight games for the Jets before the injury shut him down for the remainder of the season.
A .900 save percentage across 41 NHL games over the past two seasons did not make Pavelec a hot commodity as free agency beckoned.
“I didn’t have a lot of options, and I didn’t have many calls,” Pavelec told WFAN.com prior to the Rangers’ two-game road swing. “I’ll be honest, I didn’t know if I was going to sign in the NHL or not. It wasn’t like I had 15 calls and I had to pick one. Of course, there were some teams that we were talking with.”
All Pavelec needed was one team to express a firm interest. That team turned out to be the Rangers, who had a need to fill in net after dealing backup Antti Raanta to the Arizona Coyotes. The Rangers promptly signed Pavelec to a one-year, $1.3 million contract when free agency opened July 1.
“When the Rangers called, I knew it was a great organization with a lot of history,” Pavelec said. “To work with (goaltending coach) Benny (Allaire) and Hank (Lundqvist), it was a big part of the decision. It was my first time in free agency. It wasn’t as stressful as I thought it would be. Now, I’m here.”
After last season ended, there was interest from Europe. At least one KHL club extended an offer for Pavelec to consider.
“I had an offer in May from the KHL,” Pavelec said. “It was off the table right away. It wasn’t even an option for me. I was waiting until free agency, and I’m happy I did that. I said so many times before free agency and I said last year that my goal was to play in the NHL. I was 100 percent sure that I was going to free agency, and then we would see what’s open. Europe for me, at that point, wasn’t an option at all. Maybe if it would be in August and I still needed a contract, it might be a different story, and maybe I would change my mind. At that point, before free agency, I was like – it’s going to be the NHL or nothing.”
Back in the 2014-15 season, Pavelec posted the finest save percentage of his career — .920 in 50 games for the Jets. After a posting an .894 save percentage in February, he was able to finish the season strongly with save percentages of .943 and .965 in March and April, respectively.
“The NHL changed a little bit in those years,” Pavelec said. “The save percentages were dropping pretty much all over the NHL. There was a lot of goals being scored with the rules changing. The year that I was .920, we made the playoffs, and it was a hell of a year. In that season, I remember I was in the lowest point of my career. I fought back to get to .920. I’ve had a few injures the last few years. That’s the way it is. Everybody deals with injuries. Somebody will get even worse injuries than I had. I was able to come back and feel good again.”
Cam Talbot and Raanta flourished in understudy roles behind Lundqvist and under Allaire’s tutelage. Allaire, a renowned goalie guru, was able to summon elite-level play out of both Talbot and Raanta. Pavelec is his latest project, a rough diamond that has shined intermittently throughout an 11-year career. Perhaps, Allaire’s instruction and the opportunity to rub shoulders with Lundqvist will help smooth out Pavelec’s game.
“Of course, he has a lot of experience, and it’s a great experience for me to be able to practice with him, talk with him and work with him,” Pavelec said of Allaire. “Same thing with Hank. To be on the ice every day and to see how they react after we win or after we lose, it’s a great experience, and it’s been great for me. Since Day 1, I’ve felt really comfortable here, and you just have to keep going.”
Pavelec was forced into action after the flu caused Lundqvist to miss Tuesday’s road game against the rival Pittsburgh Penguins. The Czech netminder flashed his potential while turning aside a heavy volume of shots against the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions.
Pittsburgh fired away 23 shots in the second period, and Pavelec stood tall, making 22 saves. In all, he stopped 41 of 44 shots to lead the Rangers to a 4-3 victory.
Through his first seven games played as a Ranger, Pavelec is 4-2-4 with a 3.45 goals-against average and an .899 save percentage. Three of those appearances came in relief. A confidence-building win against the offensively loaded Penguins may have been the tonic needed to kick Pavelec’s year into gear.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey