Russell regaining form; high-tempo practices
in full swing; Tarasenko not ready to skate
By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Kris Russell understood why he was the odd-man on the Blues' defensive unit recently. It doesn't mean he had to like it.
"It's frustrating," Russell said Monday. "Doesn't matter who you are. It's just one of those things that ... there's a reason you're in the NHL. It's because you're a competitor and you work hard. You know when you're not playing your best and you understand sometimes there has to be a decision made. Sometimes it could be you."
For a stretch of two games, Russell was "you." His game wasn't necessarily at the point where he and defensive partner Roman Polak were playing at a top-notch level like they had been for the Blues in last season's playoffs.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Kris Russell (right) battles Columbus' Matt Calvert for position in
Saturday's 2-1 Blues victory over the Blue Jackets.
Not that Russell was the sole contributor, but the left-handed defenseman had just come off back-to-back games (losses against Nashville and Detroit) in which he was a minus-2 in each contest.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock went with the trio of Ian Cole, Barret Jackman and veteran Wade Redden from the left side and made Russell a healthy scratch.
"I'm not saying I didn't deserve it. I needed to play better," Russell admitted. "Hopefully I'm on the right track of establishing myself.
"We have seven great defensemen. We're lucky with our team because our depth, it's incredible. That's a strength and I think that's been a strength this last stretch. That's why we've been playing better."
Russell played two games, then sat two more but arguably his best two games of the season have come in the last two outings (a 1-0 overtime loss at Colorado and most recently, Saturday's 2-1 win over Columbus).
"Last two games have been better," Hitchcock said. "The last game was better where he used his skating to evade checkers to get himself some open space to move the puck. He's doing less thinking and doing more with his legs to get himself out of trouble, which is a big help."
Russell, whose ice time was 16:00 and 15:51, respectively, in the last two games that also saw him pick up his first point of the season Saturday, did admit that he and Polak were not on the same page earlier in the year.
"I thought me and Roman finally put a good effort together," Russell said. "Earlier we weren't making our reads together and kind of felt off. With that, the d-lines kind of got jumbled up and then it was a matter of who you were playing with and who's in the lineup."
Added Hitchcock: "I don't think they were using each other. I think they were over-handling the puck. There was no patience in their game. They weren't patient in finding each other and now they are. That's a lot better now."
It's a competition that Hitchcock calls from the left side "still a work in progress," but it's a case where Russell hopes he can stick regularly.
"I'm just trying to get better every game," Russell said. "I thought it was a good game for me (Saturday), but there are still things I can improve and I want to contribute to this team, especially getting up the ice, get my transition going. I think that can be a big part of my game with this team and help the team out. I watched video and just like everyone else in this room, I'm working hard to get better for the team."
* High tempo practice -- Hitchcock said following Saturday's win over the Blue Jackets that the team would get Sunday off and need it, because Monday and today for sure would be practices where "we need to get the tempo in our game back," Hitchcock said.
If Monday's hour, hour and 15-minute workout was any indication, the veteran Blues coach wasn't kidding.
"Everything we're practicing are game-like situations, but they're done at really high tempo," Hitchcock said ahead of the Blues' next game, against the 16-0-3 Chicago Blackhawks. "We're trying to really get as much as we can from every drill.
"What we're trying to do right now is extend the working time, so we're trying to make guys play with proper precision while being tired. And that's a big challenge. Every drill that we did (Monday) was extended so you still had to perform at a high level even though you were tired trying to catch your breath. I think if we do that for three days, by the time we get ready to play on Thursday, we'll be a better team because of it."
With a limited number of practices available because of the compressed schedule, the Blues (10-6-2) are looking to take full advantage of their time on the ice to practice.
"It was a really good one for sure," winger David Perron said. "It's good though. We have two more days after this to get rested up and get ready to go for Thursday. They're going to be tough practices. Hitch isn't fully happy with the way things are going and I think as a team, we understand that and we want to make it better."
"When you have three days off here, you've got to use it to your benefit and get some good practices in," winger Chris Stewart said. "We had the benefit of doing that last year and I think that's why we were so sharp last year.
"There's only so much you can correct on video. You want to have good practice habits because that's what carries over to the games. Those are part of the breakdowns we've had this year. We can correct them in practice and that's what we were doing today. We really pushed it out there, got a great sweat in and we're going to come back tomorrow and have another good work day."
* Tarasenko update -- Rookie Vladimir Tarasenko (concussion/facial laceration) was not on the ice Monday and hasn't skated since taking a hard hit from Colorado's Mark Olver Wednesday night.
Tarasenko, who has 12 points (six goals, six assists) in 17 games this season, can come off injured reserve and be eligible to play Thursday against Chicago but that seems highly unlikely.
"He's out," Hitchcock said. "He's not able to practice, doesn't feel good enough to participate physically. He's feeling better but not at the level where he can come on the ice.
"When he starts being able to come around and practice and perform, then that's a big step for him, but he's not there yet."
* Cleaning up -- Hitchcock was asked following Monday's practice about the boarding penalties in recent games, most notably two the Blues took against the Blue Jackets Saturday by Polak and Barret Jackman.
Hitchcock has bigger issues to deal with, though, as the Blues have taken too-many-men penalties in three of the last five games.
"We're too impatient," Hitchcock said. "We've gotten caught three times this year already where we've been coming out of a power play and we've had a forward change for a d-man and the d-man's gone on too quickly and we've ended up with three d-men on the ice. We've just got to get more precision there. The second part for me is we've gotten caught on lazy changes. Those are the two things for me that we've got to clean up quickly here."