SAN JOSE –- A shootout competition at the end of practice always tends to leave smiles on the faces of just about everyone, partly because players that would never be options in the tiebreaker get their turn to beat the goalie one-on-one.
Newcomer Roman Polak would be among the final options for the Sharks in that situation, as the rugged defenseman isn’t exactly known for his goal-scoring prowess, with one goal in 70 games this season. Still, he managed to slip one in on three attempts on Wednesday, and goalie Martin Jones credited him in the dressing room after the skate.
“I think you’d be the seventh option in the shootout,” Jones lightheartedly remarked to Polak.
“I scored a goal, eh? One-for-three, that’s not bad,” Polak told reporters.
When the Sharks acquired the 29-year-old from Toronto on Feb. 22 for some much needed depth on defense, they picked up a player that not only brought the reputation of being a good locker room guy, teammate and warrior, but someone who has an ability to play physical and deliver a game-changing hit.
Against the Blues on Tuesday, his latest blow came at the expense of Robby Fabbri, who was ridden hard into the boards by the solid six-foot, 237-pounder in the second period after putting himself in a vulnerable position. Polak, in fact, has either led the Sharks or been tied for the team lead in hits in each of the last six games, with 23 total over that span. He’s tied for fourth in the league with 270 overall.
While the Fabbri hit didn’t exactly change the course of the game, an eventual 1-0 loss to St. Louis, the Sharks haven’t had a player with an ability to deliver those kinds of momentum-altering checks since Brad Stuart or Douglas Murray.
They have it now in Polak. While he’s not the fastest guy on the team or the owner of the softest hands, Polak’s best attribute will likely show in the postseason over the course of a long series.
“He plays a man’s game. He makes the opponents earn every inch of ice out there,” said Sharks assistant coach Steve Spott, who also had Polak in Toronto. “What he does is he keeps the opposition’s players honest. He doesn’t care if you’re a fourth line guy on the opposition or a first line guy. He’s going to play the same way.
“In the Western Conference playoffs you’re going to need players like him. I think that’s why we as a coaching staff and management looked and identified him, and it’s been a good fit.”
The way the playoff race is shaping up, the Sharks are in for a difficult first round matchup against the Kings or Ducks, two of the heavier teams in the league. On Feb. 2, for example, the Ducks were the more physical team in what turned out to be a 3-2 win over the Sharks at Honda Center, including when Ryan Kesler flattened Joe Pavelski with a hard, borderline high open ice hit.
Along with his physical partner, Brenden Dillon, Polak’s value will escalate the longer a playoff series advances, according to Logan Couture.
“You play those two, the game is going to end and you’re going to feel like you played a hockey game,” Couture said. “It’s good for us down the stretch, especially in the playoffs here when those are long series. By games three and four teams are going to think twice about going in the corner with them.”
Off the ice, Polak has seemingly fit in well, too. That was a prerequisite when the Sharks decided they needed to find another defenseman.
“The one thing Doug [Wilson] was adamant about was we’ve got a very good locker room here, so make sure we bring in good people and good teammates,” Spott said. “I think anyone that talks about Roman will attest he’s a good teammate. He works hard at his game, he’s a positive guy in the dressing room, and he exudes energy.”
James Reimer, Polak’s teammate with the Maple Leafs, said: “He likes to joke around and have a good time and lighten the mood a bit. He’s serious when he needs to be, and he gets the job done, but at the same time he does a good job of keeping things fun.”