Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Roman Polak getting offensive

Blues defenseman adding goals, points; in
the end, don't open the 'Roman Polak Door'

BOSTON -- When Roman Polak scored his first goal against the San Jose Sharks on a pinch driving the net, nothing was really made of it.

When Polak stepped into a play again and scored on a laser-like pass from Alexander Steen to help the Blues earn a big point against the Phoenix Coyotes recently, some eyebrows were raised but brushed off. And when Polak did it again, this time reading the patience of Chris Stewart and stepping into another offensive zone opportunity to help the Blues beat the Carolina Hurricanes, people started taking notice in the 6-foot, 236-pound defenseman's offensive instincts.

But has this been in the making for the Czech Republic native?

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Defenseman Roman Polak (left) prides in his defense but has added an
offensive element to the Blues this season.
Polak, who after 20 games has three goals and two assists, which would put him just shy of his career-best 21 points but would shatter his career-high in goals with four, is on pace for 12 goals and 20 points this season.

Does he expect this pace to keep up? No, but having more than just Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwmeester contribute the points from the back-end seems to be paying off in a big way for the Blues.

"He's a lot more involved in the offensive game," said Blues center Vladimir Sobotka, a fellow Czech Republic native. "He's doing a great job finding a seam. he's got a great shot when he shoots.

"... He's got three goals. That's what we're asking of our d-men, to jump in the play and join the rush."

Which is precisely what Polak is doing. And he's doing it well.

Polak is reading and anticipating plays in the offensive zone. He's jumping in on the rush to aid the forwards, and he's shooting the puck more, which helps open up ice for some of the Blues' offensive weapons to get in the mix.

It's all part of a collective plan by Blues coaches to have their defensemen become more offensive.

"I think it's just the system we're playing this year," said Polak, drafted by the Blues in the sixth round in 2004. "(The coaches) actually said they need the 'D' to join the rush more. We're helping our forwards. When the forwards are going behind the net with the puck, it's always coming to the 'D' for a shot. It just works right now, but I don't think I've changed anything. It's the way we play. They wanted us to do it and I think all the d-men are doing that."

It's no coincidence that forwards are looking for Polak coming down the slot.

"That's the play we're working on," Sobotka said. "When he sees the space as a d-man, you're going to go in there and try to get open and try to get that pass and shoot on net."

"It's an easy read for me," Polak said. "They just have great patience on the boards and they see me coming. I just made eye contact and they know I'm going to skate there and I just shoot it and it went in. I don't think it's anything special though.

"Maybe I'm shooting the puck more, I don't really know. I don't think I've changed anything from last season or years before that. I've focused more on having my head up when I'm shooting. Maybe that helped me in the summer."

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said it's all about patience for the eighth-year defenseman (sixth full season).

"I think he's smarter," Hitchcock said of Polak, whose career-high in goals (four), assists (17) and points (21) came during the 2009-10 season. "I thought last year and the year before, he kind of forced it. He went down when there was no place people could get him the puck. I think he's just being more patient, reading the play better. He's not forcing the play. I think it's in his whole game. I think that's why he's played so well this year.

"He's played so well this year because he's not forcing the play offensively or defensively, so he's not gambling on pinching, he's not joining the rush when there's no opportunity to get him the puck. He's really been patient and I think it's showing in his good play now."

Polak was given an offensive role and utilized it a lot when he went back to his native Czech Republic and played for HC Vitkovice. Perhaps he brought some of those offensive instincts back to the NHL.

"I played first PP there," Polak said. "Basically I was like the offensive-defenseman and I was joking about it.

"It worked well, but it's a different rink. It's a bigger rink and I think it's kind of slower, too, because it's bigger, so you have more time for everything. I was skating the puck there and played offensively. I could do basically whatever I wanted there. If I screwed up, nobody said a word so I just tried and tried more and it worked."

(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues defenseman Roman Polak (46) aggressively punishes opposing
forwards around the goal.
Polak's heavy shot from the point hasn't gone unnoticed by Blues coaches.

"I know the one thing from our standpoint, we've always toyed with the idea ... his first year here or his second year, they used him on the power play as a shooter," Hitchcock said. "With a player that shoots the puck that hard and that well, you want to take advantage of it. And I think with the game right now getting slowed down with him, I think there's an opportunity in the next not too distant future where you could use him on the power play, especially late in games when you're defending the lead or whatever. There's no reason why he can't play back there."

But make no mistake about it, Polak won't abandon his defensive responsibilities. Come into the Blues' zone and try to open the 'Roman Polak Door,' it could get nasty -- and ugly for the opponent.

"I have to focus on that. It's my game," Polak said. "That's what got me here in the NHL. I'm not going to change it. I'm not going to start being offensive."

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