The relaxed dress code in the NHL’s bubble-based postseason has produced some memorable fashion choices. Like, for example, when Dallas Stars defenseman John Klingberg wore a T-shirt featuring teammate Joe Pavelski‘s smiling face digitally edited onto the body of infamous former zookeeper Joe Exotic as he hugged a Bengal tiger.
The origin of that shirt, as the story goes: One day, center Roope Hintz wore a tiger-print shirt to the rink. Pavelski found this to be hilarious, and chirped him for it. The mockery led to Stars forward Mattias Janmark joking about a T-shirt with Pavelski as Exotic, the star of Netflix’s quarantine hit docuseries “Tiger King.” Dallas staffers heard the suggestion and made it a reality, shipping the shirt to the Edmonton bubble. Klingberg saw the shirt and immediately claimed it as bubble couture.
After years with the San Jose Sharks when he was known colloquially as “Pavs” or “Little Joe,” Pavelski has been rechristened “Joe Exotic” by his Dallas teammates:
Joe Pavxotic 🐯 pic.twitter.com/f85d99Tlai
— Dallas Stars (@DallasStars) August 14, 2020
New nickname, same playoff performer. Pavelski tallied his first career postseason hat trick to lead Dallas to a 5-4 overtime victory in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Playoff quarterfinals on Sunday, knotting their series with the Calgary Flames at 2-2.
It wasn’t just that Pavelski scored three goals. Two of them came in critical situations. Goal No. 1 gave Dallas the lead in the opening period, the first time in seven games that the Stars struck first against their opponent. Goal No. 3 came with 12 seconds remaining in regulation, tying the game before Alexander Radulov ended it in overtime.
“This is obviously the biggest game of my Stars career so far. It’s a pivotal game. I woke up feeling good. You could tell right from the start that every guy was intense, every guy is ready,” said Pavelski. “We talked about a few things. We played pretty direct today. We went after it. And I found myself in some good spots.”
If it’s the NHL postseason, he usually does. “Listen, this is a playoff performer. It’s one of the reasons [Stars GM] Jimmy [Nill] went out and signed him,” said coach Rick Bowness.
The Dallas Stars’ season ended in 2019 with a double-overtime Game 7 loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. Nill said the elimination “really stung,” considering how promising the Stars were as a contender. “It went to Game 7. Double-overtime. That’s how close the teams are,” said Nill at the time. “We’re going to sit down as an organization. Free agency comes into play.”
Meanwhile, Pavelski was hoping free agency wasn’t going to come into play for him. Once the Sharks were eliminated last postseason — also by the Blues — he hoped for a new contract in San Jose, which drafted him in 2003 and for whom he had played 963 regular-season games. But the team’s decision to give Erik Karlsson a massive new contract, and the Sharks’ reluctance to give the veteran Pavelski the term he wanted, left them at an impasse. For the first time, Pavelski was hitting the unrestricted free-agent market.
“I always had a feeling that something would probably work out. Until it didn’t, I didn’t have any reason to think it wouldn’t,” said Pavelski on his talks with the Sharks.
Pavelski, now 36, signed a three-year, $21 million free-agent deal with the Stars last summer. Nill said he was “a leader in every sense of the word, and a proven goal scorer that continues to produce at an elite level.” But it was also clear what the Stars were investing in: a player whose postseason production could, perhaps, get Dallas that one goal they weren’t getting in a key moment of a playoff series.
When the Sharks were seen as playoff underachievers, Pavelski would be one of the few stars who would perform. When they finally broke through and made the Stanley Cup Final in 2016, Pavelski led the league with 14 playoff goals. He now has 53 postseason goals in 141 games, a higher goals-per-game average (0.38) than his career regular-season rate (0.36).
“What can you say about him? He’s a heck of a hockey player. Unbelievable résumé,” said Stars forward Tyler Seguin. “He just knows what to do in big moments, and what to say as well.”
Pavelski’s vocal leadership has been an asset in the bubble, too. He said it’s all about “trying to get up for the moment” in the playoffs.
“You understand there are certain parts of the game that need to be simple. You go in with the right mindset and go from there. These are the moments that we want to play in. That’s why we put in the work in the regular season: To put ourselves in situations like this that test our character. You saw the shots. You saw the attempts and the saves. We win that game as a team,” said Pavelski.
And when adversity hits?
“You stay in the moment. You understand you’re going to get another chance to tie this game up and find a way to win it. It took a while. But there was never a sense that we weren’t going to win once we got to overtime,” said Pavelski.
Bowness praised Pavelski as a locker room leader. “You’re seeing what he’s doing on the ice. I’ve been listening to what he’s saying in between periods and on the bench, which is just as important,” said Bowness.
For Pavelski, the postseason provides an opportunity to validate the Stars’ investment in him. He managed only 14 goals in 67 games in the regular season, down from 38 goals last season in San Jose. His goals-per-game average (0.21) was the lowest single-season rate of his career.
The rallying cry from his supporters was to judge him based on what he could accomplish in the postseason, rather than regular-season output. They’ve been proved right so far: He has five goals in seven postseason games, with three of them coming in that critical Game 4 win over Calgary. But he’s also executing the details of the Stars’ game plan, like a key blocked shot on Johnny Gaudreau in Game 4.
“It’s just as important, that blocked shot. That’s how you win hockey games. Those little things that go unnoticed to the public, but the bench sees it. You’re seeing the goals. We’re seeing all the little details of his game that are just as important,” said Bowness.
That effort was acknowledged in a brief ceremony in the Stars’ dressing room after their Game 4 win. Defenseman Jamie Oleksiak stood in the middle of his teammates, holding a heavy metallic chain with a large circular pendant bearing the Stars’ logo. He went around the room highlighting players who had contributed to the win.
“Dobes,” he said, fist-bumping goalie Anton Khudobin.
“Klinger, way to hit the net,” he said to Klingberg, whose shot was tipped home in overtime.
“But,” Oleksiak said, building up to the player of the game announcement. “Joe Exotic!”
Oleksiak walked over to Pavelski, handing him the hefty trinket before the man of the match placed it around his own neck. His teammates let out a cheer. Encapsulated in one playoff game, this is what Joe Pavelski brings to a team: that “eye of the tiger,” if you will.
“He’s a pro. A playoff performer. And he showed today why we signed him,” said Bowness.