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X-factor Russell helps Flames make playoffs

by Aaron Vickers / NHL.com

CALGARY -- When Calgary Flames captain Mark Giordano went down with a season-ending injury in late February, fellow defenseman Kris Russell stepped up.

The surprising Flames didn't skip a beat.

Giordano was among the top Norris Trophy candidates before he was sidelined with a torn biceps muscle. His loss left many to write off Calgary's chances of returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs after a five-year absence.

Instead, Russell, the NHL leader and single-season record-holder for shot blocks in a season, helped tug the upstart Flames back into the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

Not that he's willing to take the credit.

"When you lose, not just what he brings on the ice but off it as well, you can't replace [Giordano]," Russell said. "I thought we've done a pretty good job, as best we could, with other guys stepping up saying something in the room or playing on the ice. It's a void, obviously. He's a guy that we really miss but at the same time we know that there's a lot of guys in this locker room stepping up.

"I think that's part of our game. Everyone sacrifices. Our whole team, that's why we've been successful. If we can get in front of shots we try to do that."

Russell, at 5-foot-10, has been among those standing the tallest down the stretch.

Prior to Feb. 25, when Giordano sustained his season-ending injury after getting tangled up with New Jersey Devils forward Steve Bernier, Russell played 25 minutes or more 13 times in 59 games.

In his first 20 games after Giordano went down, Russell exceeded that mark 14 times.

He also helped make up for some of the offense that was lost. After starting the season with one goal and 20 points, Russell scored three goals and 14 points in the first 20 games after Giordano's injury.

Russell's ability to step up when needed hasn't caught defensive partner Dennis Wideman off-guard.

"I think he's just a guy that does everything right," Wideman said. "He plays the game hard, he's a good skater and a good passer and the best shot-blocker in the game right now. He's a guy that contributes everything -- offense and defense -- he's been solid and he seems to get better every game and every year.

"He's been great, he's been one of our best defenseman this year. He's been solid every night. You know what you're going to get from him. There's not ups and downs in his game, he comes out and he plays great every night.

"He likes to win and he knows how to win and that's the biggest thing."

With such praise from Wideman, it's hard to imagine that Russell cost the Flames a fifth-round draft pick when they acquired him from the St. Louis Blues two years ago.

The inexpensive addition helped the Flames into the playoffs for the first time since 2009, but hasn't come as a surprise to his coach.

"I don't think that there's a point in the two seasons since we acquired him that we say, 'Wow, we discovered Kris Russell'," coach Bob Hartley said. "I discovered Kris Russell the first time that I met him. Off the ice, on the ice, this guy is the ultimate pro. He battles. He works hard. It's all about team. I think that obviously his confidence is growing because the more that he's playing, the more that we're winning. He feels a big part of this team.

"He's a very important soldier for us."

Opportunity, Russell admitted, had been his biggest obstacle. He's flourished with more responsibility in Calgary after being trapped down the depth chart with the Blues.

"It's the opportunity," the Caroline, Alberta, native said. "I think it's playing well with that opportunity as well, earning minutes. At the same time as a player when you come into a situation, you just want to have that opportunity to play some minutes.

"When I came in, there was a lot up in the air, a lot of spots available. I thought I did a pretty good job of taking advantage of that, but at the same time every day I'm trying to progress and keep getting better."

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