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Russell proving to be good fit for Stars; Spezza on a roll

by Mark Stepneski / Dallas Stars

With six games under his belt as a Dallas Star, defenseman Kris Russell is proving to be a good fit. Russell is averaging almost 25 minutes of ice time per game and has chipped in four assists.

“It's been good. When injuries come other guys have to step up and minutes are going to go up a bit,” Russell said. “It's a good group of guys in there, and that’s made the transition easy. There’s some habits, structurally the way Dallas plays that I’ve got to get in my game, and I am working on that. But every day I feel more comfortable.”

Russell, who was acquired from Calgary at the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 29, has helped the Stars ride out injuries to defensemen John Klingberg, Jason Demers and Jordie Benn.

“Good timing [on the trade], for sure,” said Stars defenseman Alex Goligoski. “Kind of crazy. You get one, then two and then three injuries in a row, but he came right in and has been comfortable. It's been huge for us."

Stars coach Lindy Ruff said Russell started to look comfortable in Friday’s 5-2 win over Chicago. Russell logged 27:24 of ice time, blocked five shots and played big minutes on both sides of special teams. Russell played a season-high 27:45 Tuesday in Montreal.

“With the personnel we have out we’re asking more of our defensemen,” Ruff said. “He’s a guy who can play some bigger minutes and is used to all situations. He’s been a big asset to us.”

Russell was expected to bring experience to the Dallas blue line. He’s one of the game’s top shot blockers. The Stars were counting on him to kill penalties and help move the puck. He’s done that.

But with Klingberg out, Russell has stepped in and helped on the power play, logging time on the top unit and chipping in two power-play assists.

“I just give them the puck,” Russell said with a smile. “I’ve played power play most of my career. It’s keep it simple, move the puck quick, put the puck on net when I have lanes. Like I said, there is a lot of skill up front there, so when you get the puck in their hands, they make some plays.”

And his teammates have been heaping praise on Russell’s play in a Dallas uniform since he arrived from Calgary.

“He’s a pro,” said Stars center Jason Spezza. “He’s steady back there. He blocks shots, he’s been able to help on the power play with [Klingberg] out. He’s on the first penalty kill and he’s just a good pro and fit in seamlessly to how we play.”

Stars center Jason Spezza is on a roll. With his two-goal effort Saturday night against St. Louis, Spezza extended his goal scoring streak to a career-high six games. He has seven goals during that stretch.

“I’ve had some pretty good [runs] over the years, but goal scoring-wise this is pretty good,” Spezza said.

Spezza has scored ten goals over the past ten games and now has 28 on the season, which had him tied for tenth in the league through Saturday’s games.

“He’s playing his best hockey, by far, all year,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “He’s really skating well, and he’s put himself in position and scored a lot of different goals. He’s been around the front of the net, he’s been in the right place, and pucks have come to him, and he’s made good plays. I really like the way he’s playing. Offensively, since the time he’s been here, this is the best he’s been.”

The Dallas Stars penalty kill has been up and down this season, but it has been on the upswing lately. The PK is 17-17 over the past five games and has been tops in the league in the month of March at 95.2 percent, killing off 20 of 21 power plays.

“Guys have been paying attention to details, sacrificing their bodies to block shots,” said Stars center Cody Eakin. “There’s been communication, the goalie has been making some saves, and we’ve been getting the puck out when we’ve had a chance.”

The penalty kill came up big over the weekend as the Stars took three of four points in key divisional games against Chicago and St. Louis, killing off all nine opposition power plays it faced. Saturday night, the penalty kill stopped a St. Louis power play late in the third period to keep it a one-goal game and allow the Stars to tie with a late power-play tally.

“It’s desperation, shot blocking,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “It’s not often you see a power play stay in the zone the full two minutes, but it wasn’t that we were giving up chance after chance. We stayed inside, and guys did a great job of staying in lanes and they got sticks on pucks. We probably showed nine shot lane blocks from last night with the desperation that we had. We’re doing a good job with entries and then once we’re in the zone we haven’t been making very many big mistakes which could open up the other team’s opportunities. I’ve really liked how hard these guys have gone about their business when we’re shorthanded.”

Stars goaltender Antti Niemi has hit a rough patch. Over his last six appearances, Niemi is 1-2-2 with a 4.72 goals-against average and .857 save percentage.

He gave up five goals on 36 shots in Saturday’s overtime loss to St. Louis at American Airlines Center in his first start since March 1.

“I thought it was a tough night for him,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “He hasn’t played in a while, but I thought he gave us some good saves, but I thought there were a couple he could have had for us. He’s run into a little bit of a tough stretch but with the number of games we’re playing back-to-back, I thought we’d give him a go. He’s going to have to work his way out of it.”

Since the All-Star break, Niemi is 4-3-2 with a 4.11 goals-against average and .862 save percentage.

*The Stars had a scheduled day off Sunday.

*The Stars are scheduled to practice Monday in Frisco at 10:30 in the morning.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.

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