Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Polak one of the game's toughest to play against

Blues defenseman "can wear people out" according to coach

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When Roman Polak heard a question about his experience and sharing that wisdom with some of the younger Blues defensemen, the Ostrava, Czech Republic native was quick to point out the obvious:

"Yeah, but I think I'm still young, so I'm learning, too," Polak said.

Yes, Polak is still young at 25, but with 259 NHL games under his belt and in his sixth season with the Blues, there is plenty of experience. Polak has more than enough knowledge to share his expertise with the younger 20-somethings like Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Ian Cole and even 24-year-old partner Kris Russell.
(Getty Images)
Detroit's Johan Franzen takes a heavy hit from Blues d-man Roman
Polak (46) in a recent game.

A lot of the credit that comes from the Blues' d-unit comes from rising stars like Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk. And rightfully so. But each team has a set of defensemen with their own unique abilities.

For Polak, his job is to shut the opponent down. And shut them down is his mission. If he can walk away night in and night out with the knowledge that he was able to do that, his job was complete.

"My focus is on the d-zone. I'm not a big offensive guy," said Polak, who has seven assists in 32 games this season and eight goals and 56 points for his career after being drafted in the sixth round (180th overall) in 2004 by the Blues. "If I jump into the rush a couple times, it's just a plus. When I'm good in the d-zone, for me it's a good game. If we win, it's a great game. I have to focus on the physical game and be strong."

Simple formula right? Not if you're the opposition.

"He's pretty powerful," Pietrangelo said. "If I was on the other team, he's not a guy I'd want to go one-on-one against.

"He's a tough guy to play against. He's real good at what he does. Everybody knows what he's here for. He's one of the best shutdown guys. He sees the ice well, too. You can go on and on about how valuable he is. .. And he's a great teammate as well."

When Blues coach Ken Hitchcock came onto the scene here in early November, he admitted not knowing much about Polak or his hockey background. But in one month's time, the 60-year-old's learned that he's got himself a reliable shutdown defenseman that he can utilize in multiple situations.

"Polak for me is the biggest surprise," Hitchcock said. "I didn't know much about him, but he's a very very strong player. He plays a very physical game that can really wear people out.

"I didn't know he was as accomplished as he was from not coaching him here before. I'm very impressed. I'm really impressed with the way he handles himself on the ice, how much he's improved in the last month that I've seen him play. ... I didn't know about the toughness side of things, but he's a strong, tough guy."

Polak's ability to shut the opposition down as well as drop the gloves when needed (just ask Columbus' Dane Byers after Sunday night's game) and the ability to join the rush with his quick-paced skating ability is impressive for a guy that's 6-foot-1 and weighs in at 225 pounds.

"He can really throw his body weight around and punish guys," said Russell, whose brother Ryan was Polak's teammate for the Kootenay Ice of the WHL. "When he can do that, it makes more space for guys around him.

"He is a guy that's responsible. He takes pride in his own end, and it shows. He plays hard, he blocks a lot of shots, he's a guy this team leans on every night."

There are guys with speed in their own end, but one wouldn't predict it would come from Polak, but his closing speed on an opposing skater is second to none. It all comes from his off-season conditioning and he's among the best when the Blues open camp and go through the dreaded VO2 testing. Polak is always at the top of the charts. He averages 19:08 of ice time her game this season.

"A guy on a breakaway and he skates back as hard as he can and he's got him by three steps," Pietrangelo said of Polak. "He's certainly a powerful skater."

As powerful as Polak is on the ice, he's a guy his teammates love off the ice. Just his playful demeanor and joking mood makes him one of the locker room's favorites.

"You're not going to find a better guy that Roman," Pietrangelo said. "You guys know how he is and he's a lot of fun to be around."

But on the ice, Polak, who represented his country at the 2010 Winter Olympics, is all business.
(Getty Images)
Blues defenseman Roman Polak (right) goes up against the Flyers' Scott
Hartnell earlier this season.

Hitchcock said if the Blues get in a seven-game playoff series, this is the type of player the Blues will heavily rely on.

"In a seven-game series, guys like (Barret) Jackman and Polak have a huge impact," Hitchcock said. "I think also in a division series, they get the other teams' attention. I think even before you get to the playoffs, when you play inter-division games, you're playing a team six times, you can really get their attention.

"His whole game's underrated. He's a really competitive guy. He's ultra-competitive, and he's got the size to go along with it. When he pins you against the boards, you stay pinned. You don't get off the boards when he pins you there.

"Him and (T.J.) Oshie, those two guys on the team have surprised me the most."

Blues management has been equally as impressed with Polak's play. They rewarded him with a new five-year, $13.75 million deal in June after he proved himself worthy at the completion of a two-year contract last season.

The Blues have Polak locked up during the prime years of his career, and he feels like there's more to come. The Blues are banking on it.

"There's always something. Every day, you have to get better," said Polak, who's part of the No. 2 team in the NHL in goals-against average per game (2.03). "If you want to be a better hockey player, you have to be better every day and working on stuff."

When a team has a guy whose main concern is winning, it can't ask for much more.

"... I'm just trying my hardest," Polak said. "But right now, we're just focused on winning. Everything else is not important."

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