SAN JOSE -- Joe Pavelski is keeping some heady company these days.

His attention-getting 18 goals in the past 20 games has vaulted him into the NHL's upper echelon as only one player -- Washington Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechkin -- has more goals than the 27 that Pavelski has notched.

The Sharks forward already was on a mini-roll with four goals in four games when Sharks coach Todd McLellan began juggling his top two lines after Tomas Hertl's knee injury Dec. 19. One of those moves elevated Pavelski alongside Joe Thornton and Brent Burns, a top line that has remained intact the past 15 games.

The fact that Thornton is the NHL assists leader with 47 helps account for Pavelski's tear, which includes six goals in his past three games and his first career hat trick. But he is quick to include both linemates in explaining his recent success as a "combination of a whole lot of things."

"They're such high-end players," Pavelski said of his current linemates. "I feel like I'm always open, right? And they've been able to deliver the puck."

It's not as if Pavelski, 29, had been hiding in the shadows. After all, he is a two-time Olympian who will represent the United States in Sochi next month. But on a Sharks team with veteran leaders such as Thornton and Patrick Marleau in their mid-30s, or younger standouts such as Logan Couture and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Pavelski can be the overlooked man in the middle.

But not these days.

Pavelski, who had a career-best 31 goals in 2011-12 and is on pace for 44, doesn't think he is doing too much differently on this run. Ten of Pavelski's goals have come on the power play, 17 at even strength. On many, he was stationed close to the crease and found the open spot for a quick shot or tip-in.

"I'm trying to make a few better reads, a few better plays and at times, hitting the puck a little cleaner," he said.

Is his overall game getting better?

"Getting older," he said, "it better be better."

Since the Sharks "refresh and reset" makeover last spring, McLellan had preferred to use Pavelski as a third-line center, creating problems for other teams that can get burned by San Jose's depth. But Pavelski's current success -- as well as that of the team, which is 13-6-1 over those 20 games despite the rash of injuries -- has the coach rethinking that strategy.

Break up that new top line when others get healthy? Not necessarily.

What happens later, McLellan said, has at least as much to do with the development of Andrew Desjardins in Pavelski's old job on the third line as what Pavelski has done the past five weeks.

"Right now, they have some chemistry," McLellan said of the Thornton line. "We like what we're seeing there. More importantly, we like what Desi is doing in the three hole. If you have the ability to put somebody in there and carry that line, you feel good about leaving Pav where he is. And Desi has shown over the last seven or eight games that he's very capable of taking more on."

Pavelski said it is up to the coach to determine where he ends up playing when others such as Couture and Raffi Torres are back in the lineup.

But he also appeared to tip his preference when asked if he had a vote in the matter.

"Maybe if I keep playing well," Pavelski said. "We'll see."

Beyond his move to the top line and career-best scoring binge, one other thing about Pavelski has changed this season -- his hair length.

After years with an almost military-style buzz cut, Pavelski now has more than enough to brush. Is there a connection between the new look and those 27 goals?

"I don't think so," Pavelski said. "I just haven't cut it much this year. The guys wanted me to grow it out, so I grew it out."

On the other hand, he added that he doesn't plan to have it cut anytime soon.

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.

SOARING IN SCORING
With his recent scoring spurt -- 18 goals in the past 20 games -- Sharks center Joe Pavelski has launched himself near the top of the NHL goal-scoring leaders. Here's a look at his monthly stats and where he ranks among the NHL scoring elite:


THURSDAY'S GAME
Winnipeg (23-23-5) at Sharks
(32-12-6), 7:30 p.m. CSNCA

goals by month
Month Games Goals
October 13 5
November 13 4
December 14 7
January 10 11
Totals 50 27
NHL scoring leaders
Player Team Goals
Alex Ovechkin WSH 35
Joe Pavelski SJ 27
Corey Perry ANA 27
Three tied with 26