EDMONTON — Kris Russell gets lost in today’s National Hockey League, a throw-back, 1980’s, blood ‘n’ guts defenceman who dies on the table for the numbers surgeons in 2017.
The analytics folks? They can’t stand the poor guy, whose intangible attributes are unquantifiable, and certainly no match for the Fancy Stats his game spits out.
But his teammates? There is a special place in the hearts of hockey players for guys who do what Kris Russell does, and they’d fight a mad bull for him.
The way his dad did during all those Central Alberta summers as a bullfighter — formerly called rodeo clowns — saving cowboys’ bacon every weekend, driving the dusty roads out of out of little Caroline, Alta.
“He’s a guy you would go to war for. He does everything for us,” said Connor McDavid, moments after Russell’s own-goal had turned a fabulous game into heartbreak, and to the Toronto Maple Leafs by a 6-4 score. “He throws himself in shooting lanes where most guys would be diving to get out of the way. He puts himself in harm’s way.”
Your chances of finding a Marquay McDaniel (the Calgary Stampeders player who callously blamed a teammate who’d made a key Grey Cup fumble) in the Oilers room after Thursday’s crippling turn of events were less than nil.
Point the finger of blame at Russell? Not among hockey men who see for themselves the selfless game Russell plays, a 667-game career of covering others’ mistakes, blocking shots with whatever body part is handy.
He’d had a fantastic game, scoring a key goal, adding an assist, playing 24:10 in the sudden absence of defenceman Adam Larsson, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. Four blocked shots, four hits, four shots on goal — the Corsi guys might even have liked him on this night, until he spun and wired a shot five-hole on Laurent Brossoit that broke a 4-4 tie with 1:05 to play.
“It was a bounce,” said Russell, who was there in his stall when the media entered post-game, even though he looked he wanted to vomit. “I turned to try and battle it out and obviously you know what happened.”
Russell is a veteran. Hang around this league long enough, something like this will happen to you.
But on this night, when a struggling Oilers club had clawed back from 2-0 and 3-1 first-period deficits, this type of ending just gutted the guy.
“I’m pretty frustrated with the way it ended,” he said, at a loss for words to describe the disappointment. “I don’t know what you want me to say? You know what happened at the end.”
This was one of those games when Russell’s attributes were overt enough that even his toughest critics might see some value. His usual subtle, unquantifiable game was augmented by a couple of points and some steady zone exits, a third-pairing guy shining on a night when the two fourth lines combined for five goals.
“He does so many good things for us, you can’t fault a guy for making a mistake like that,” said Brossoit, called into duty for the next two weeks at least, with Cam Talbot going on injured reserve.
Russell’s blast perfectly beat Brossoit from about 15 feet, a real shame when the young backup had played so well after being absolutely bombarded by the Leafs in the first period.
“I didn’t see it on a Toronto stick, but at the same time I could have been a little sharper, could have been a bit more ready, especially with a minute left,” said Brossoit. “I could have been more intense to make sure we closed it out and got it to overtime.”
Count Brossoit as another guy lining up to take a bullet for Russell. Even his opponents took time to send sympathies.
“I’m feeling for him right now,” said Toronto’s Nazem Kadri. “They did a great job, they earned themselves at least a point in that one, and came up a little bit short. Tough bounce.”
It summed up the Oilers season, really.
And alas, gave the digital world another reason to rag on Russell.
In case they’d run out of ammo.