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Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Night Full of Pluses for Kris Russell

Literally and figuratively, there were plenty of pluses when it came to Kris Russell's game on Saturday night.

In one of the best games of Russell's seven NHL seasons, the Flames defenceman scored the game's first goal and was on the ice for all five of Calgary's goals, which were all even-strength. His career-best plus-5 helped Calgary to a badly needed 5-2 victory over the Washington Capitals.

(My game story on Saturday's 5-2 victory, as filed for The Canadian Press. It's focused around Mike Cammalleri, who paced the Flames offence with two goals and an assist.)

How good of an evening was it for the native of Caroline, Alberta? Only twice before in 374 NHL games had Russell finished a game greater than plus-2. On both of those nights, which were three seasons apart,  he was a plus-3:
  • Mar. 23, 2013 - With St. Louis, at Edmonton, 3-0 W (defence partner was Roman Polak)
  • Nov. 30, 2009 - With Columbus, vs St. Louis, 5-2 W (defence partner was Mike Commodore)

Furious Start for the Flames

The evening began about as good as an opening shift in an NHL game can go. Russell and his defence partner all season, Dennis Wideman -- also a career-best plus-five on the night (three times Wideman has been a plus-4, the latest was Mar. 7, 2009), combined with the starting forward line of Mike Cammalleri alongside Calgarians Joe Colborne and TJ Galiardi, to hem the puck in the Capitals' end for nearly the entire 64 seconds it took to eventually generate the first goal. Calgary took a 1-0 lead when Russell's wrist shot through a screen beat Braden Holtby.

"It was huge. It's always important to get a good first few shifts," said Russell, who was recognized post-game with the Flames fire hat, which is given out by the players after each win. "If you can score early, you can build momentum and especially in your home rink."

After limping home from a long, gruelling road trip with a 1-4-0 record, it was important for the Flames to jump out to an early lead and regain the good feeling the club had when it started the season 3-0-2.

"Especially the way the last few games went on the road, we knew we had to have a big game, especially against a team like this with how much offensive power they have," said Russell. "We had to have a sharp start and I thought we did a great job.”

Russell also added an assist to give him five points in the season's first 11 games. Last season with the St. Louis Blues, he managed only seven points in 33 games. At his current pace, he'll eclipse his previous high of 23 points in 2010-11 with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the team that drafted Russell from the Medicine Hat Tigers (WHL) in the third round of the 2005 NHL Entry draft.

“Russell played very, very well. I thought that he jumped in the play and made some great decisions with the puck defensively," said Flames coach Bob Hartley. "For a small-sized defenseman it is pretty unbelievable how he’s always in the play. He always finds a way to get it done. A very intelligent player.”

Don't Judge Him By His Size

Russell is listed as 5-foot-10 and 173 pounds. He's the only Flames defenceman under six-foot and he and TJ Brodie (182 pounds) are the lone Calgary blue-liners south of 195 pounds. But as he showed, weight and height are no measure of a player's will.

Russell also played a strong game defensively versus Washington. In one sequence in the third period with the Capitals pressing to get back in the game, he denied a scoring opportunity for the ever-dangerous Russian sniper Alex Ovechkin.  Bursting down the right wing with a ton of speed, Ovechkin tried to get past Russell but Russell stood his ground -- sort of, and denied him. Russell went tumbling backwards as can happen when you're giving up five inches and over 55 pounds but it was a significant defensive 'stand' and preserved momentum for the Flames.

“You don't want him to get past you, first of all," said Russell, who was acquired by Calgary in the summer in exchange for a fifth round draft pick in 2014. "You know he's a shooter and he likes to shoot through you so I just tried to do the best job I could of staying in his lane and trying to get as much body and stick in front of him as I could."

Ovechkin would finish the night without a point for the first time in eight career games against the Flames. He had eight goals and seven assists in his first seven games versus Calgary. He also entered the night as the NHL's leading goal scorer with 10 and third in points with 15.

"Guys like him, with his special talent, you have to have a five-man unit out there defensively and I think our forwards did a great job of coming back hard and even when they did get opportunities, that back-check was there and we took their second chances away," Russell said. "Obviously (Karri) Ramo made some big saves, especially that one power play on Ovechkin coming across so whenever you get those saves, it's huge as well."

Restoring that Winning Feeling

Kicking off a pivotal three-game home-stand, which will be followed by another very difficult road trip, Russell said it was important that the Flames get back to their good habits from the start of the year.

"We needed to get back to the basics. That's why were successful earlier. We're not a team that can rely on one line to score every night," Russell said. "We did a better job tonight of throughout our line-up, coming in waves. Every shift, we kind of had momentum and if we lost it, the next shift had the task of getting it back and I think we did a really good job of that."

With Calgary missing the services of captain Mark Giordano for the third game in a row, the rest of the club's veteran defencemen continue to see more ice time. Russell's 27:12 was his highest haul of the season and second most minutes played in a single game in his career. With Columbus, he played 28:18 in a victory over the Edmonton Oilers back on Mar. 15, 2010. 

The Flames now have three days off to prepare for their next test, which is Wednesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

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