By LOU KORAC
DALLAS -- Alexander Steen drew the tough assignment in Game 7 against the Chicago Blackhawks because coach Ken Hitchcock wanted his best two-way player against Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
Steen will draw a similar assignment when the Blues open their best-of-7 Western Conference Second Round series against the Dallas Stars today (7 p.m. on NBCSN, KYKY 98.1-FM) and their star, forward Jamie Benn.
Steen and the Blues, who defeated the Blackhawks in seven games, limited the Blackhawks' star power to one goal in the series (Kane's overtime winner in Game 5). It'll be another daunting task for Steen to limit Benn, who had 10 points (four goals, six assists) in six games against the Minnesota Wild in the first round.
"I think it's a similar style to their team," Steen said of Benn and the Stars. "A lot of firepower up front. It'll be a similar game plan for us."
To say he looks forward to facing the Stars' biggest guns is understating it.
"Yeah," Steen said. "I think the style of game we've been playing over the last few months, four months, this team atmosphere, team attitude where we're leaving each other in good positions on the ice. Everybody has their roles and their jobs. That's a big reason why we've been able to defeat the Blackhawks. It was a tough club to play seven games against. Now we've got a new challenge in these guys and we're excited, ready to go."
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A lot was made of the Blues facing Blackhawks agitator Andrew Shaw in the first round and if the Blues will see something similar with what they will get from Stars wing Antoine Roussel.
Roussel, who had one goal in six games against the Wild, has been known to stir the pot a time or two while on the ice, and the Blues should expect more of the same.
"There are a lot better players to worry about over there," right wing Steve Ott said. "His element is his element, but I think we're little bit different players.
"... He's a good player, guys. He's a fast, energy type of player and I think every team has one of those guys if you really look around the league. If it was Shaw last series, if it's Roussel this series, he bring a spark to that hockey club. He's a good player ... you've got to be knowing when he's on the ice, knowing what hes' going to do, but whistle to whistle is where we're taking this thing."
Steen said: "It's playoffs. It's not going to affect us."
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock has other ideas.
"I don't think you can ignore that fella, just like I don't think you can ignore a couple guys on our team," Hitchcock said. "So you just have to play through it. There's a big picture here, it's about winning the hockey game. It's bigger than ice time. It's bigger than how much guys play, who they play with. It's about winning the hockey game. And he's a good player that does a lot of things that as a coach you like and we have a couple guys on our team exactly the same who are underrated on things you like and you've just got to learn to play through those guys."
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Former Blues defenseman Kris Russell, who was traded to the Stars at the NHL Trade Deadline, has gone up against his former teammates before as a member of the Calgary Flames.
But for Russell, who spent two seasons (2011-13) in St. Louis, this will be the first opportunity to face them with the stakes much higher.
"I know how competitive players they are," Russell said of the Blues. "I had a good opportunity to play with them. They're guys that work hard. They bring it every night. It's a consistent team that works hard, a big, physical team. We know what we're going into obviously. We have a great group in this room, a lot of skill and high-end speed. We're excited about the opportunity to play them."
Russell, who was acquired at the trade deadline for defenseman Jyrki Jokipakka, forward Brett Pollock and a conditional second round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, got a new lease on life despite having to leave Calgary, which is an hour and 45 minutes south, southeast of his hometown of Caroline, Alberta.
"Right from the get-go, it's a great group of guys," Russell said. "The transition was easy, seamless that way. There's a lot of similarities with the way we played in Calgary. That helped a little bit. Obviously there's adjustments you've got to make. Trying to get familiar with a D-partner and trying to get some chemistry. But it's been going great. ... Obviously there's some things I had to change. There's a different structure with the way they play here, but I work with the video coach here; every team does that, but it's been good."
Stars coach Lindy Ruff feels Russell is finally fitting in after a tough start.
"Well, first thing is he’s had a little bit of a rough ride because he got injured, spent a good part out of the lineup, which has been tough for him," Ruff said of Russell. "Probably could have played some of those games, but I decided to make sure he was healthy to come back. I think he fully understands how we play, which is different from the environment he came from, which is a big adjustment. But I think he’s adjusting. He realizes that we’re a different type of team and we expect certain things and I think he’s gotten better the games he’s played."
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The Blues announced on Friday that they will face the Washington Capitals in a preseason game on Oct. 5 at Sprint Center in Kansas City.
It's a matchup that could see Russian stars Vladimir Tarasenko and Alex Ovechkin go against one another.
Tickets will go on sale on Tuesday, May 3 at noon at SprintCenter.com, the Price Chopper Box Office at Sprint Center or by phone at (888) 929-7849. Discounts are available for groups of 10 or more by calling Sprint Center Group Sales at 816.929.7177 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Steen was asked about the differences in Stars goalies Kari Lehtonen, who will start Game 1 for the Stars, and Antti Niemi.
"No, they're pretty similar. Both Finnish," Steen said with a grin.
So you don't like them?
"I'm Swedish," Steen responded.
"No, I think they're pretty similar," Steen added. "It'll be important for us to get traffic, try and create some chaos right outside their crease, get to loose pucks and make it tough on their defensemen to defend."
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Scottie Upshall, who took the past two days off for maintenance days, was back on the ice and will play tonight.
Upshall's impact, despite just playing 9 minutes 35 seconds, in Game 7 was noticeable in the first period.
"For sure. He had great legs right off the bat," Ott said of Upshall. "He hit the post, could have been a valuable goal right away. He also moved up and down the lineup during the game for a few shifts. When you have a guy that's playing like that, you find a way to get him on the ice and he's playing really well right now."
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Playing Chicago, the Blues feel it will be beneficial in this series, considering the two teams play a similar style.
"Yeah, I think the way they're built, the style of game that they play," Steen said. "I think (Johnny) Oduya and (Patrick) Sharp probably brought over a little bit of a Chicago influence into this group. I'm sure it'll be similar."
Said captain David Backes: "There's a few similar style similarities. We can't think that we're any more prepared or that anything's going to come any easier for us. We've got to put all the work in, start from 0-0 and have a great effort for Game 1 and worry about Game 2 after that's over."
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The Blues' projected lineup:
Jaden Schwartz-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko
Robby Fabbri-Paul Stastny-Troy Brouwer
Patrik Berglund-Alexander Steen-David Backes
Steve Ott-Kyle Brodziak-Scottie Upshall
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Joel Edmundson-Kevin Shattenkirk
Carl Gunnarsson-Colton Parayko
Brian Elliott will start in goal. Jake Allen will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Robert Bortuzzo, Ryan Reaves, Dmitrij Jaskin, Magnus Paajarvi, Ty Rattie, Chris Butler, Peter Harrold and Anders Nilsson. The Blues report no injuries.
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The Stars' projected lineup:
Jamie Benn-Cody Eakin-Patrick Sharp
Mattias Janmark-Jason Spezza-Patrick Eaves
Antoine Roussel-Radek Faksa-Ales Hemsky
Travis Moen-Vernon Fiddler-Colton Sceviour
Alex Goligoski-John Klingberg
Johnny Oduya-Stephen Johns
Kris Russell-Jason Demers
Kari Lehtonen will start in goal. Antti Niemi will be the backup.
Patrik Nemeth, Jamie Oleksiak, Jordie Benn and Valeri Nichushkin are healthy scratches. Tyler Seguin (lower body) will not play.