Nov. 21, 2014
Notre Dame, Indiana - When a player from top-ranked Minnesota skated into the Irish end of the rink in a recent college hockey battle, University of Notre Dame defenseman Robbie Russo took care of the threat with a bone-jarring check that thrust his opponent into the boards.
Seconds later, Russo was pulling the trigger on a shot that rifled past the Minnesota goalie for a goal.
Russo, a 6-foot, 191-pound senior from Westmont, Illinois, is a double-barreled threat for the Irish hockey team. A fourth-round pick by the Islanders in the 2011 NHL entry draft, Russo leads Hockey East defensemen with five goals, and he's tied for the national lead for goals by a defenseman.
In addition to lighting the lamp five times for the Irish this season, Russo has dished out seven assists, giving him 12 points in 13 games.
Russo hopes to keep up the attack Friday night, when Notre Dame (6-6-1 overall, 2-2-1 Hockey East) takes on the University of Massachusetts-Lowell at 7:35 p.m. EST at the Compton Family Ice Arena.
"Mostly in college hockey, a defenseman typically gets power-play points, but Robbie has the ability and has shown it, how he can create something out of nothing," said Jordan Gross, a freshman defenseman. "He can make plays you would expect a defenseman to make in five on five."
Irish head coach Jeff Jackson said for a defenseman to also be a prolific scorer, it takes a blend of talent and being hockey savvy.
"It is about skill, but it's about instincts, and Robbie's got really good instincts," Jackson said. "He's learned how to pick his spots and when he can jump in and be more of a creative factor.
"He's always had those abilities, but for the first time since I can remember, even when he was with the (U.S.) national program, he's playing with more assertiveness," Jackson continued about Russo. "Some of that is confidence, some of it is prodding. He'd heard it from us. He's heard it from the Islanders. He's heard it from probably everybody, that he has to play with a little more assertiveness."
Russo said he's stepped up his game and is being more assertive.
"I have to play aggressive all over the ice," Russo said. "Offensively, that's a little easier for me, using my vision to jump into the play. Defensively, I'm just trying to finish as many checks as I can and play physical in front of the net."
According to Russo, offense is a natural extension of his game.
"I think you just have to shoot the puck," Russo said. "It sounds pretty simple, but I'm trying to shoot the puck more, get more shots on net per game. When you do that, pucks will start going in. I think just jumping up in the rush, too, getting down there where forwards do, that helps a lot.
"A lot of it is trusting my teammates. If a guy has a puck on the wall, he'll get it out so you can go. I put a great deal of trust in my teammates and they usually come through."
Russo has dedicated himself to making an impact in his senior season. He was sidelined for much of last season in order to focus on academic progress.
"Robbie's coming off a tough situation," Jackson said. "I give him credit for the fact he worked his rear end off in the spring.
"Brock Sheahan, our volunteer coach, did a great job of working with him on the ice, doing a lot of one-on-one stuff. He worked. He probably came into the season a little ticked off, frankly, at himself, for putting himself and putting his team in that situation."
Russo handled the situation with maturity and came back strong for his team.
"I was disappointed in myself," Russo said. "All I could do was work hard. There was anger, not at anybody else but at myself. You just have to use that to motivate yourself. I was angry coming into the season, but not out of control. I feel like I have a lot to prove.
"I worked as hard as I could every day, getting stronger and faster, working on parts of my game I thought were weaknesses. I worked with Brock Sheahan and (strength coach) Tony Rolinski every day, and they really helped me improve and get better."
This season, Russo is poised to have an All-America caliber season as a defenseman with a scoring punch.
"It's pretty valuable to be a dual threat," Russo said. "Growing up, those are the guys I idolized, like (former Detroit Red Wing) Nicklas Lidstrom. He'd be one I always tried to watch. If you can add offense from the back, those teams are usually the better teams. The teams that win the Cup, their defensemen contribute on offense."
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent