Sunday, March 17, 2013

Russell elevating play as Blues' game rising

Defenseman scratched earlier in season, played season-high
minutes in Saturday win against Anaheim with Pietrangelo (flu) out

ST. LOUIS -- When it became known that the Blues would be without their top defenseman in Alex Pietrangelo for Saturday's game against Anaheim, the onus was placed on a collective effort to by all six defensemen to pick up the slack.

Not only did all six (Barret Jackman, Kevin Shattenkirk, Roman Polak, Kris Russell, Wade Redden and Ian Cole) pick up the slack, but Russell chipped in with his first goal of the season that helped the Blues win for the fifth time in six games -- including four in a row at home -- in a 2-1 overtime win over the Ducks.
(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Defenseman Kris Russell played a season-high 22:21 in Saturday's OT
win over Anaheim, scoring his first goal of the season. 

But the areas that would most affect those playing on the back line Saturday would be minutes played.

Who would pick up the slack vacated by Pietrangelo, who was tops on the team and eighth in the NHL at 25 minutes, 43 seconds?

"I think the whole d-corps felt that," Russell said. "He's probably the guy that plays (the smartest). I think he does play the most minutes on our team. When you lose a guy like that, everyone's got to step up and play bigger minutes.

"I thought we might have been a little sluggish to start with, kind of feeling out, but I thought we did a great job at the end and limited their chances."

Russell, whose play has dramatically improved since the start of the season, stepped to the forefront along with his defensive partner Polak and Cole, who was praised by coach Ken Hitchcock and teammates following the game.

Russell, who logged 22:21 Saturday night -- the first time he's reached 20 minutes in a game this season and the second-most since arriving in St. Louis last season (he played 24:45 on Nov. 29, 2011 at Washington) -- has found his game.

Hitchcock has noticed Russell's play as well and rewarded him with the added responsibility.

"He's back to playing the way he's capable of," Hitchcock said of Russell. "I think we're honoring that by playing him more minutes, but also he's found a niche with him and Roman to taking on responsibility at either secondary checking or certainly against heavy weighty lineups. I think he's done a heck of a job."

Since being a healthy scratch for four of six games, the 5-foot-10, 172-pound Caroline, Alberta native has seen his minutes dramatically increase to 17:18 per game over the course of the last 12 games compared to 14:07 in the first 12 games. Russell's also collected all four of his points on the season (one goal, three assists) in the last 11 games and played in 12 straight.

"I'm feeling good about my game again," Russell said. "At the start, I wasn't playing to my strengths. I was reacting instead of going after things, pushing the pace, using my speed and just playing the game of hockey. I'm simplifying little things. Me and Romy have found that groove back together and it's been good."

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