Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Polak, Russell not your ordinary defensive duo

Both played prominent roles in eliminating
Sharks; Blues will rely on pair again against Kings

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- When the Blues acquired Kris Russell about a week after they hired Ken Hitchcock to coach, they knew what -- and who -- they were getting.

That's because Hitchcock had previously coached Russell in Columbus.

The veteran Hitchcock didn't waste any time giving Roman Polak his fourth defensive partner with the season barely a month old.
(Getty Images)
Blues defenseman Roman Polak (right) provides the physical toughness with
defensive partner Kris Russell.

And Hitchcock didn't mind matching the duo despite their physical differences and playing styles. It was like matching oil and water.

Polak, the big, burly 6-foot-1, 225-pound mass of muscle known to punish opponents on his side of the ice from the right, and Russell, the smallish 5-10, 172-pound wispy but dart-like skater who transitions the puck smoothly from one zone to the other.

It would never work.

Or would it?

"I thought we developed it pretty early," Russell said. "I thought we had a good regular season together."

Russell, who was acquired from Columbus for fellow d-man Nikita Nikitin, was needed by the Blues. Hitchcock immediately identified that the Blues were lacking another fluent puck-transitioning defenseman. Although everyone has their ups and downs, the pair seemed to work well. Both read off one another quickly and soon found they were more alike than they realized.

Instead of oil and water, they soon fit like peanut butter and jelly.

The Blues finally found a third pairing after settling in with Carlo Colaiacovo-Alex Pietrangelo and Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk.

"I think that's why we've been good is we read off of each other," Russell said. "If you've seen Romy, he's been leading rushes as well. When he has a chance to jump, he jumps and I stay back and vice versa."

Polak said identification was key, which the two have developed quite well despite a Czech Republic native and a Canadian. There was instant communication.

"My focus is on the d-zone. I'm not a big offensive guy," Polak said recently. "If I jump into the rush a couple times, it's just a plus. When I'm good in the d-zone, for me it's a good game. If we win, it's a great game. I have to focus on the physical game and be strong.

"That's what Russ is for. He's the guy that gets going forward. I'll cover for him anytime and I think he knows that."

When the Blues beat the San Jose Sharks in five games in the Western Conference Quarterfinals, the duo may have arguably been the team's most consistent defensive pairing.

Hitchcock didn't have to think twice about using them against San Jose's skilled line of Patrick Marleau, Ryan Clowe and Martin Havlat.

"They went up against some big horses, played very, very well," Hitchcock said of Russell and Polak. "That's a dynamite line. Clowe is a handful; Romy did a great job against Clowe. Russell had to handle a lot of speed and skill with Havlat and Marleau. They did a great job.

"Those two guys really found a niche. I'm very, very impressed. If they can continue to get that body of work in, that's really going to help us. I think it gave us more energy because we were able to divvy up the second and third pair ... very similar to what LA's done."

The Blues, who play the Los Angeles Kings in the conference semifinals, needed Polak and Russell to eat up minutes in the first round.

"[Barret] Jackman and [Kevin] Shattenkirk had a tough first round," Hitchcock admitted. "They didn't play as well as they did during the regular season; we're going to need them to play better here. They're going to need to be significant players here for the second round. It forced us to play that [Polak-Russell] pair more, and then we found out the more we played them in significant roles -- checking roles -- the better they played. I think once we narrowed their focus and they became a checking pair of defensemen, they had a big impact in the game."

Between the two, they had one point [a Russell assist] in five games, but having the ability to shut down a top scoring line helped the Blues limit the Sharks to eight goals in five games in the series. It also helped the Colaiacovo-Pietrangelo pairing to focus more on San Jose's top line with Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski.
(Getty Images)
Kris Russell has provided the perfect defensive partner for Roman Polak. 

"I felt leading up to the playoffs we were playing really well together," Russell said of he and Polak, who each were involved in a fight in the series with the Sharks. "I think we took it to another level come playoff time. We read off of each other really well. He's a real easy player to play with. He makes good plays, he makes hard plays, he's a smart hockey player and he always puts himself in a position to help you out. I try to do the same for him.

"It was a challenge. In Game 2, we got matched up against that second line, and they've got some good players. I thought we did really well. We tried to play them physical, limit their time and space and I thought we did a good job. Romy's obviously a big, physical guy. He made it tough on those guys. I tried to use more body position, stick-work and my speed. I thought we did a good job."

The Blues went away from the pair late in the season, trying something different because they thought, as Hitchcock said, "We tried to get more from Russ. We thought we could get a little bit more in some areas and then we just decided ... he is what he is; he's a mobile defending defenseman that can play a little bit on the power play and that's how we're using him and it's made him way more effective.

"Both guys, when they play together, they keep it simple, basic and over a course of a series, those type of players have a big impact."

With the Kings posing a threat with their size, speed and skill, Russell and Polak will figure to play prominent roles if the Blues are to advance.

"I think they're a little bit more physical, their top six," Russell said of the Kings. "They've got some bigger bodies, they like to play that physical game, get pucks and drive to the net.

"It's a tough task. Every team's good. That's the thing about playoffs. Any team one through eight can win the Stanley Cup. LA's put themselves in a good position as we have. Romy and I look forward to the challenge."

The Sharks found out the hard way to not open 'The Roman Polak Door,' a reference Hitchcock used after Polak easily bested San Jose's Justin Braun in a fight at the end of Game 2. Russell is entitled to "open it," because he knows which buttons to push with his teammate and partner.

"Romy and I have gotten to know each other really well," Russell said. "I think it's showing in our play together."

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