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Stanley Cup Final

Polak, Dillon need to improve in Game 5

Sharks defense pair must avoid mistakes that have plagued them during Cup Final

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

PITTSBURGH -- Stuff happens. Pucks bounce on bad ice, deflect off shin pads, ricochet right to the wrong guy. During the course of the regular season, stuff tends to even out and can be overlooked. This is the Stanley Cup Final, however, a best-of-7 series for a championship, and there is no time for anything to even out and nothing is overlooked.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks have played three one-goal games and one two-goal game. The Penguins take a 3-1 series lead into Game 5 at Consol Energy Center on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports) and have a chance to raise the Cup on home ice; the Sharks face elimination. Every play matters. Every mistake hurts.

"It's hockey," Sharks defenseman Roman Polak said Thursday morning. "It happens a lot of times during the season. But the season, it's just a regular game. It doesn't count this much."

For Polak and defense partner Brenden Dillon, this series has been particularly hard. The Penguins have scored six even-strength goals over the past three games. Polak has been on the ice for three of them, Dillon for four. Both were on the ice for the first goal in each of the past three games, especially important considering the Sharks keep playing from behind. They have not played with the lead yet in this series.

In Game 2, the puck bounced on bad ice in the San Jose zone, Polak didn't get enough of it when he tried to pass and turned it over, and Penguins forward Phil Kessel ended up cashing in. In Game 3, Penguins defenseman Ben Lovejoy tossed a knuckleball from the right point, and the puck deflected off Polak's shin pad and into the net. In Game 4, Dillon forced Kessel to the outside, Kessel shot from the right dot and the puck ricocheted right to Penguins defenseman Ian Cole, who put it into an open net for his first goal in 105 games. Polak, who had stepped up in the neutral zone and got caught on the wrong side of the ice, was nowhere near him.

Video: SJS@PIT, Gm2: Kessel opens scoring after turnover

"Every goal is so frustrating," Dillon said. "You try to watch the tape. You think, 'What could I have done? Could I have talked more? Could I have communicated? Could I have skated? Blocked a shot?' Whatever it might be. I mean, I think every eye is on every play, every pass, every shot, every goal, so it's frustrating. That's absolutely for sure."

There has been some bad luck involved, but all the bad luck occurred in the San Jose zone, where Dillon and Polak have spent too much time. When they were on the ice at even strength, the Sharks almost broke even in shot attempts in Games 1 and 4, but they were negative by a significant margin in Games 2 and 3.

Sharks coach Peter DeBoer has shortened his bench up front in this series. He should shorten it on defense too, leaning more on Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. But he hasn't done it and indicated he wouldn't do it in Game 5, even though the Penguins will have the last change at home and control the matchups.

Video: PIT@SJS, Gm4: Vlasic checks Crosby into Sharks bench

"We're going to dance with the girl we brought to the dance," DeBoer said Wednesday. "This is our group. We're going to go out there and play."

If DeBoer sticks with Polak and Dillon playing about 15 minutes, they must improve, keeping the puck in the Pittsburgh zone as much as possible, doing whatever they can to avoid mistakes all over the ice. One error could mean the difference between playing Game 6 at SAP Center on Sunday or going home for the summer with regret, and they know it.

"I think you've got to earn your own luck," Dillon said. "If you're going to go back, have a pregame nap and just hope that the hockey gods help you and give you a shot from the red line to go in, I don't think we'd be in a good spot. I think this group, you've been through so much all year, the common focus is you want to earn that next game. …

"I think it's going to be a long summer if guys aren't bringing their best efforts. I think that's going to be kind of the common theme. 'Hey, we don't want this to be our last game'. We want to keep playing. This group's fought so hard to get to this point. Let's not end it now."

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