By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- As much as the Blues have altered their forward pairings for much of this season, there have also been some juggling with the defensive pairings as well.
But one constant has been the pairing of Barret Jackman and Roman Polak.
Both have been mainstays and a steadying force on the Blues' blue line for much of the past two seasons -- aside from injury.
Jackman leads the team in ice time per game at 22:55, while Polak is fourth at 20:07.
"It keeps you sharp," Jackman said. "Every game when you're playing against some of the best players on the other team, it really makes you play your best. If you're not on top of your game, you're going to cost your team. We definitely enjoy that caliber of hockey.
"Whenever you're called upon, you go out there and try and do your job. The more you play, the less you think and allow your hockey instincts to kick in."
The duo's hockey instincts have had to kick in a lot, as they go up against the game's best each and every game, including tonight when the Blues (24-22-8) entertain the Columbus Blue Jackets (21-26-9).
And when the two teams hit the ice, you can bet Jackman and Polak will see a lot of Rick Nash and the Jackets' top line for much of the game.
"They relish that role," Blues coach Davis Payne said. "It's two guys that work off each other extremely well. They're big, strong guys that aren't going to play a heavy hand in our transition game but certainly make some corner work and make some defensive zone situations difficult for our opponent. You have to have those guys. They log a ton of minutes against key people and we value that job very highly in our room."
Playing together has really allowed this twosome to shine and elevate their respective games. Both allow one another to play off their strengths.
"You get to know the tendencies of guys in different situations and what plays your partner is going to make," Jackman said. "It definitely makes it nice to be able to play consistently with him."
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The Blues are coming off a 2-1 western Canada swing after Thursday's 2-1 win at Edmonton, giving the team an astounding 5-1 road mark against Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton on the road. Those venues have been very difficult for the Blues in seasons past.
"We've got to get right back on track," said Payne, whose team is 7-3-1 in their last 11 games. "I didn't feel we had a great deal of energy in Edmonton, but we got the job done."
There is only one lineup change as far as tonight's game is concerned. Defenseman Erik Johnson will be back in the lineup after sitting out the Edmonton game with a bit of a jammed thumb following Wednesday's scrum in which Johnson got mixed up with the Canucks' Rick Rypien.
The forward lines at today's morning skate featured the following pairings:
Paul Kariya-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
Andy McDonald-Keith Tkachuk-Brad Boyes
Alex Steen-Patrik Berglund-David Perron
Brad Winchester-Jay McClement-B.J. Crombeen
D.J. King (broken hand), who was called up from Peoria this morning following a two-week conditioning stint, was also on the ice but will not play. Cam Janssen is a healthy scratch.
The defensive pairings will also remain the same as Thursday:
Barret Jackman-Roman Polak
Eric Brewer-Erik Johnson
Darryl Sydor-Mike Weaver
Carlo Colaiacovo (upper-body), who has not played since injuring himself Jan. 21 at Ottawa, was on the ice this morning and deemed himself ready to go, but Payne is sticking with what he feels like has been a steady unit that got the team four of six points in Canada. Payne said Colaiacovo is available, and the Blues' defenseman displayed the body language of a frustrated player who feels like he is ready to get back in following today's skate.
"We anticipate that he's available," Payne said. "It's just a situation where we like what we have coming out of this road trip. And EJ going back in kind of changes the dynamic of the group back there as far as power play situations go. Carlo is going to get plenty of opportunity to get back in there."
Chris Mason makes the start in goal.
Mason, who is 16-15-7 on the season with a solid 2.50 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage on the season, said this morning that there's no secret to he and backup Ty Conklin (8-7-1, 2.61 GAA, .921 save percentage) staying sharp and keeping each other focused.
"We're both older, so we know the routine, but the healthy competition in practice is what helps prepare us very well," Mason said. "There's no secret formula. When you feel good, you just want to play and play well.
"I think we're both feeling good in there and both playing well. Especially this time of year when we need the wins, I think that's definitely an important part of getting points."
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The Blue Jackets, who are 2-1 against the Blues this season -- each team has won at home -- come in with only three wins on their last nine games. They have also been hit with the flu bug as well, as forward Kristian Huselius and defenseman Anton Stralman will not play tonight because of flu ailments.
This will mark the third meeting between the two teams in the last 19 days, with Columbus winning 4-2 on Jan. 18.
"With Columbus, there's some unique skill on that front line with Nash and Huselius and (R.J.) Umberger," Payne said. "The (Raffi) Torres group burnt us the last time we were in their building, so a lot of vertical speed we've got to deal with and we've got to make sure we handle our game from inside our own zone first and make sure we apply some good pressure in their end."
So with Huselius out, Umberger will move up to the top line as the Jackets will go with the following lineup:
R.J. Umberger-Antoine Vermette-Rick Nash
Raffi Torres-Derick Brassard-Jakub Voracek
Fredrik Modin-Samuel Pahlsson-Chris Clark
Derek Dorsett-Andrew Murray-Jared Boll
The defensive pairings will feature:
Jan Hejda-Mike Commodore
Kris Russell-Marc Methot
Fedor Tyutin-Mathieu Roy
Mathieu Garon gets the nod in goal for the Jackets. It will be Garon's first action in five games, as Steve Mason started the last four games.