Polak: Mental toughness was key to Sharks' long playoff run

Polak: Mental toughness was key to Sharks' long playoff run

TORONTO – For years, the Sharks were known as a team able to have strong regular seasons, but missing the kind of temperament necessary to make a deep playoff run. That all changed last season, when the club made its first appearance in the Stanley Cup Final, getting past the Kings, Predators and Blues before falling to the Penguins.

Roman Polak was a part of that run, coming to San Jose for a pair of second round picks on Feb. 22. He played 24 regular season games, and all 24 in the playoffs, too.

What struck him the most about the Sharks upon his arrival? Just the thing that critics of the club pointed to for their past failures.

“I think the biggest thing was their mental toughness,” said Polak, who re-joined the Maple Leafs in the offseason. “No matter if you were down one goal or two goals, they were still sticking with the same game plan. They knew in their heads they were going to win, no matter what.”

“Even if you’re losing after the first period it was calm during the intermission, and everybody knew what to do and everybody just [stuck] with the plan and played a role.”

Whether you consider the Sharks’ acquisition of Polak a success depends on your point of view – the tough-as-nails competitor was a key contributor in series against the heavier Kings and Blues, in particular, with his six-foot-two, 235-pound frame. He was exposed in the Final, though, for being a bit too plodding to keep up with speedy Pittsburgh.

The 30-year-old Polak enjoyed the run, getting to the postseason for the first time since 2013-14 when he was with St. Louis.

“It meant a lot. I think we had a great run all playoffs basically,” he said. “But, now it’s in the past. I need to focus on this team here, so I’m going to be focused in on that tonight.”

An unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of last season, Polak indicated there were very brief talks about his returning to San Jose. Ultimately, he went back to play for the Maple Leafs for a fourth season.

The Leafs aren’t likely to make a deep playoff run, if they make it at all. But they have a roster of many young up-and-coming players like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, and should be on the upswing under celebrated coach Mike Babcock.

“We have a very young team, and I think we’re proving it. Every game is better and better. We still have lots to learn, but I think we’re [going] in a good [direction],” Polak said.

“We don’t look ahead like what are we going to do in the playoffs, or if we’re going to be in the playoffs. I think we need to learn every game, and keep going forward.”

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The Maple Leafs also feature former Sharks forward Ben Smith on their roster, who will be lining up as the fourth line center on Tuesday night. Smith has bounced around since the end of last season, to put it mildly. 

He began the 2015-16 season on the Sharks roster, suffered a concussion, was eventually reassigned to the Barracuda, was traded to Toronto as part of the James Reimer deal on Feb. 27, signed with Colorado this past offseason, was waived from the Avalanche after four games, and then claimed by the Maple Leafs.

Smith admitted that his time in San Jose “didn’t go the way I wanted it to, unfortunately. It happened, and I’m trying to bounce back from it.”

Still, the well-liked forward was pleased to see his former team go deep in the playoffs last season.

“Obviously some good friends on that team, so it was good to see them do so well. I don’t have any negative or bad memories of being with the Sharks. It just didn’t work out the way that I hoped it would.”

In 25 games this season, Smith has two goals and one assist for three points while averaging 11:45 of ice time.

“I don’t take this for granted," Smith said. "Last year, being up and down quite a bit, I’m trying to work every day and earn every day.”

After a perfect week, Sharks have playoff breathing room with three weeks to go


After a perfect week, Sharks have playoff breathing room with three weeks to go

The Sharks’ playoff outlook is a lot rosier after winning all four of their games last week. They are now four points clear of the Los Angeles Kings in the second Wild Card spot, and three points up the Anaheim Ducks, who are third place in the Pacific Division.

Those are four-point and three-point improvements, respectively, over those same spots last week. The Sharks even picked up ground on the first-place Vegas Golden Knights, and are eight points back of the Pacific’s leaders, with two head-to-head matchups remaining.

That’s not quite close enough to warrant inclusion in a look at the playoff picture headed into the week, but could be next week if San Jose continues to make up ground. Otherwise, it’s still worth examining where the Sharks stand in regards to the Pacific and the Wild Card.

San Jose Sharks (Second in the Pacific, 89 points)

Games Remaining: 10

On the Docket:  3/20 vs New Jersey, 3/22 vs Vegas, 3/24 vs Calgary

Outlook: Over the next two weeks, the schedule really starts to become difficult. San Jose has only two games remaining against teams on the outside looking in, and is just 2-6-2 in its last 10 against teams currently in a playoff spot. If that trend continues, the newfound breathing room could start to disappear rather quickly.

Anaheim Ducks (Third in the Pacific, 86 points)

Games Remaining: Nine

On the Docket: 3/21 at Calgary, 3/23 at Winnipeg, 3/25 at Edmonton

Outlook: The Ducks have now won three in a row, including next Sunday against the red-hot New Jersey Devils. They’ll play four of their final five road games in the next nine days, and all but one of their opponents is not in playoff position. Anaheim’s just 15-14-7 away from the Honda Center, though. With the fewest games remaining of any playoff team, the Ducks will help to move up any further.

Colorado Avalanche (First Wild Card, 86 points)

Games Remaining: 10

On the Docket: 3/20 at Chicago, 3/22 vs Los Angeles, 3/24 vs Vegas

Outlook: Give it up for surefire Hart Trophy finalist Nathan MacKinnon and the Avalanche, winners of three of four last week. Other than a slip-up on the second night of a back-to-back in Nashville, Colorado was outright dominant, outscoring opponents 16-7. A midweek matchup against Los Angeles could create some Wild Card separation.

Los Angeles Kings (Second Wild Card, 84 points)

Games Remaining: 10

On the Docket: 3/19 at Minnesota, 3/20 at Winnipeg, 3/22 at Colorado, 3/24 at Edmonton

Outlook: The Kings picked up points in three of four, including on both nights of a back-to-back. Their schedule really picks up this week, as they’ll face three playoff-bound teams from the Central on the road. The struggling Stars remain on their heels, although the Kings have a game in hand.

Dallas Stars (Ninth in the West, 84 points)

Games Remaining: Nine

On the Docket: 3/20 at Washington, 3/23 vs Boston. 3/25 vs Vancouver

Outlook: Is Dallas in the middle of a Lone Star letdown? We wrote last week that a difficult schedule could create openings for the teams chasing them and boy, did it ever. The Stars went 0-2-2 on the week, and picked up just one point against the lottery-bound Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators. They’ll surely relish a matchup against the Canucks in six days, as it’s their only remaining game against a non-playoff team.

St. Louis Blues (10th in the West, 83 points)

Games Remaining: 10

On the Docket: 3/21 vs Boston, 3/23 vs Vancouver, 3/24 at Columbus

Outlook: For the second straight season, it’s not quite time to stick a fork in the St. Louis Blues. Yes, they are once again in the playoff hunt after trading one of their best players at the trade deadline, and won three out of four to move with in a point of the final Wild Card spot. The Blues have now won four of five, and still have an uphill climb ahead. After last season, is it ever safe to rule them out?

The Departed: Calgary Flames (11th in the West, 80 points)

This section is reserved for teams that have fallen out of the playoff picture since our last look at the playoff picture, and the Calgary Flames have earned(?) the inaugural (dis)honor. The Flames failed to keep the door to the playoffs ajar thanks to a 7-4 loss to the Sharks on Friday, and it slammed shut after a 4-0 loss in Sin City on Sunday. They have to jump three teams and cover four points of ground to earn a Wild Card spot. The latest stretch stings, but the Flames will likely look on a four-game, post-trade deadline losing streak as when their playoff hopes burned out.

Sharks overcome early deficit, injuries to finish road trip with third straight win


Sharks overcome early deficit, injuries to finish road trip with third straight win

VANCOUVER --Timo Meier's second goal of the game snapped a third-period tie and the San Jose Sharks beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-3 on Saturday night for their fourth consecutive victory.

Logan Couture and Kevin Labanc each had a goal and an assist, and Tomas Hertl scored into an empty net with 25 seconds remaining for the Sharks, who are 7-2-0 in their last nine games.

Nikolay Goldobin, Alex Edler and Bo Horvat scored power-play goals and Sam Gagner had two assists for the Canucks, who lost their sixth consecutive game - their longest losing streak of the season.

Goldobin's goal at 10:48 of the first period snapped a scoreless streak of 222 minutes, 57 minutes for the Canucks, who had been shut out in three consecutive losses.

The Sharks had allowed just two power-play goals in their previous 17 games, but gave up three against Vancouver. The only other time San Jose allowed three power-play goals in a game was in an opening-night loss to Philadelphia.

Aaron Dell, making his first start since Feb. 22, made 28 saves for the Sharks. Vancouver's Jacob Markstrom stopped 25 shots.

Meier put the Sharks ahead at 6:07 of the third with a shot from the faceoff circle that went under Markstrom's blocker. The Canucks came close with just over six minutes left, but Hertl scooped a loose puck off the goal line.

Vancouver scored twice with the man-advantage in the second period to tie the game at 3.

The Sharks took a 3-1 lead just 1:47 into the period when Meier tipped in Brenden Dillion's shot from the point.

Horvat started Vancouver's comeback, scoring just 6 seconds into a power play. Dell stopped Gagner's slap shot but Horvat jammed home the rebound. Edler tied it with a blast from the point at 11:48. It was his first power-play goal in 88 games dating to Feb. 17, 2017.

The Sharks scored 1:10 apart in the first period to erase a 1-0 deficit.

Goldobin opened the scoring when he took a pass from defenseman Derrick Pouilot and snapped a shot from the face-off circle that sailed over Dell's shoulder. The San Jose goalie was screened by Jake Virtanen.

Labanc tied it on a power play at 14:48. Joe Pavelski's shot was stopped by Markstrom, but he managed to get his own rebound and passed it to Labanc at the side of the net.

The Sharks went ahead on Couture's 29th of the season at 16:08. He took a feed from Hertl, fought off a check by Virtanen and chipped the puck past Markstrom.

NOTES: Defenseman Chris Tanev returned to Vancouver lineup for his first game since breaking his leg Feb. 8 against Tampa Bay ... San Jose center Melker Karlsson went to the dressing favoring his right leg early in the first period after blocking a shot. ... San Jose's Marc-Edouard Vlasic left in the second period after being hit in the chest by a puck. ... The Canucks' franchise record for a scoring drought is 234 minutes, 52 seconds, set March 16-24, 2016. ... The longest goal drought by a team in the expansion era is 262 minutes, 3 seconds, set by the Minnesota North Stars from Jan. 28-Feb. 6, 1988.


Sharks: vs. New Jersey on Tuesday night.

Canucks: at Vegas on Tuesday night.