DALLAS – Antoine Roussel is at his best when he’s under your skin.
The 26-year-old Frenchman is a professional antagonist who finds the little things that throw an opponent off his game.
A hit or shove behind the play, the well-timed quip and the occasional scrap are all part of Roussel’s arsenal. Add in the toothy grin he flashes and his ability to contribute offensively (29 points in the regular season), and Roussel is downright maddening to play against.
“Oh, yeah,” Dallas center Cody Eakin said. “He does a good job of that. He toes the line, a lot of guys don’t like playing against him. … It creates ice for other guys, but I think the most frustrating thing for other [teams] is he can also put the puck in the net.”
Roussel is the sandpaper in a bag of precision instruments for Dallas Stars coach Lindy Ruff. The winger’s abrasive game lights a spark for his teammates, and he embraces feeling the hate from opponents and fans.
“I know when I’ve gotten to someone,” Roussel said. “It usually ends better for us than them.”
On Thursday, Roussel did his best to get to the Wild in a 4-0 Stars victory.
In the first period he gave Mikael Granlund a forearm shiver after the whistle, and later he exchanged words and shoves with Charlie Coyle before a faceoff.
In the middle period, he discreetly tapped Justin Fontaine’s cheek with his stick before a faceoff, and then made an acrobatic play to jump on to the bench and stay onside and make a change before Dallas’ first goal.
Roussel was skating back toward the neutral zone when Ales Hemsky stole the puck, and the winger sprinted toward the bench and leapt through the open door just before the puck entered the zone. That made a goal by Radek Faksa stand up.
“That’s a desperation to make sure you’re not offside,” Ruff said. “That play counts as much as any other person for what they did on that goal by Faksa.”
It all lines up well for Roussel to join the likes of past playoff villains Cody McLeod and Steve Ott as a player Wild fans love to hate.
Roussel also doesn’t like thinking about his only NHL playoff experience before Game 1 against Minnesota. In 2014 Roussel and the Stars lost to the Anaheim Ducks in Game 6, blowing a two-goal lead when they were within three minutes of forcing Game 7.
“That hurt,” Roussel said.
Roussel said he learned a lot from that series. He said he let his emotions get the best of him and had to learn how to control that in a playoff series.
Now, he said, it’s all about reading the situation in the postseason. There’s more leeway to push the envelope early, while late-game situations often require cooler heads to prevail.
“Just be emotionally stable,” Roussel said. “Don’t get too low, don’t get too high.”
Minnesota could use the same philosophy to counter Roussel’s antics this series.
“Turn the [other] cheek. If you let those guys get to you, they’re good at it. And he’s kind of made a career out of it,” forward Ryan Carter said. “If you turn the cheek it can end up rattling them a little bit. It’s important that you learn to ignore it.”