By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- When Erik Johnson skated off the ice at Joe Louis Arena Wednesday night, nobody knew when the sight of the Blues' defenseman would be seen again.
But when the news came down that Johnson's knee injury was not serious, he was back on the ice Friday going through a full workout. Then Saturday, he was back out there again participating in the morning skate.
And in the end, Johnson will only have missed one game, because the top overall pick of 2006 will be back in the lineup tonight when the Blues (15-10-5) host the San Jose Sharks (16-11-5) at 7 (FSN, KMOX 1120-AM). Defenseman Nikita Nikitin was assigned back to Peoria.
Johnson, who got tangled up with Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk in the first period of the Blues' 5-2 defeat against the Red Wings, got MRI results and they came back only showing a sprain/strain of the right knee, the same knee that cost him all of 2008-09.
"A big relief. When it happened, I wasn't exactly sure what the extent of it was," Johnson said Saturday morning. "All I know is it didn't feel very good at the time. Any time you're dealing with something you've had major surgery on before, you've got to be careful. I'm pretty fortunate it wasn't too serious."
Blues coach Davis Payne said the fact that Johnson took part in full workouts Friday made it reassuring that he had a chance to play tonight.
"It's a big test," Payne said. "You come into a pregame skate is one thing. You come through the paces that he had to go through yesterday where we were able to push a little harder and push a little longer and then have a day to see how everything reacts is probably the day that we needed in order to get him ready for tonight."
Even Johnson was surprised by how well things went at St. Louis Mills Friday.
"I was just planning on going out and testing it out and see how it felt," Johnson said. "As practice went on, it felt better and better. Obviously the skate at the end solidified my mind and the trainers that there's a chance I could go tonight. ... It's a big relief and I'm really pleased."
The sight of Johnson ready to go is certainly an uplifting feeling for the team.
"It's obviously huge," defenseman Ian Cole said. "We have been short with personnel. This isn't exactly the same team that started the year. We're missing a lot of huge, big-name guys, but to get a guy like EJ back is uplifting. It definitely kind of re-energizes everything.
"When you see him go down, kind of limping off and kind of favoring his knee, you automatically think back to that ... damn golf cart. Obviously it's a huge blow for us when he goes down. He logs huge minutes, great offensive defenseman and is so solid in his own end. He anchors the power play unit. ... It's a huge loss for us when he goes down, and then he's back so quick. It's a testament to our training staff to be able to diagnose it and get it fixed and figured it out."
Johnson had a feeling immediately that maybe it wouldn't be a serious injury but still had some unsettling feelings.
"No, it wasn't a pop or anything like that. If it was a pop, I think we'd probably be talking about surgery again," Johnson said. "It was just kind of like a pull and a strain. The pain wasn't very good when it happened obviously. That's why I didn't come back in the game, Secondly, it was the same knee I had operated on. We wanted to make sure we knew what it was before we did anything.
"There wasn't too much swelling or anything like that, so I was a little confident that it wasn't anything too serious, but you still never know. ... There's always a little doubt in your mind, but when the radiologist came in and said it's pretty clean, I was very relieved."
Johnson will be paired once again with Barret Jackman, who he played with in Detroit.
"No matter what, you're never 100 percent and it's something you can play through or tape up and brace and stuff like that," Johnson said. "It's basically pain tolerance for me. It's not at a level where it's keeping me out, so it's a good thing. I'm pretty fortunate I can come back in tonight.
"... Waking up and seeing the doctor (Thursday) morning kind of eased my thoughts a little bit just because he didn't think it was too serious. We just got the results and thankfully, it was just a strain. That would have been a heart-breaker for sure."
Once again, Johnson was skating with Alex Pietrangelo (upper-body) and Roman Polak (wrist).
The thought of everyone back healthy is what everyone is looking forward to.
"Hopefully it looks like Petro and Romy are close," Johnson said. "That's good for our team. They're obviously big parts of it. Hopefully, we can all be back in the lineup really soon. When you have your whole team going on all cylinders, it makes a difference."
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Pietrangelo, will miss a third consecutive game tonight, as he's still dealing with what is believed to be a shoulder issue.
"With Petro, it's one of those things where again, each day it makes progress," Payne said. "It's day-to-day and how he feels. Like we've talked about and since all these injuries have come, it's part of it. It's part of our day. Guys coming in, guys coming out and we just keep working. When guys are ready, they're ready."
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Looking at the Western Conference standings on a daily basis could be considered a waste of time.
Why? Because each time a West team steps on the ice, winning could be the difference between jumping up four or five slots as opposed to being skipped over by a plethora of teams.
Fourteen points separates the West from top to bottom and six points separates the top eight in the conference.
The difference in the Eastern Conference? How about 30 points between top to bottom.
"Every single game has playoff implications," Blues coach Davis Payne said, referring to the West. "You look at what two points does to you in the standings is probably less noticeable than the lack of two points. Each team recognizes how tightly-bunched it is now, how tightly-bunched it's going to be April 9th. You've got to make sure you're collecting as much as you can along the way.
"Ultimately, the competition forces you to become better. I think the top teams have forced everybody else to raise their level and to improve in all different areas. The competitive element and to know what it takes to get in the Western Conference is really what's driven the parity because we know you have to be that good."
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The Blues should have the same line combinations that they threw out there in Thursday's 6-4 win over the Kings:
Vladimir Sobotka-David Backes-Brad Boyes
Brad Winchester-Patrik Berglund-B.J. Crombeen
Alex Steen-Jay McClement-Matt D'Agostini
Chris Porter-Dave Scatchard-Cam Janssen
Backes did not take part in the morning skate but is good to go tonight. He's still nursing some soreness after being hit with a shot off the stick of Steen in Detroit.
But keep an eye on possibly Crombeen and D'Agostini switching spots. Crombeen was also skating with Steen/McClement and D'Agostini was also skating with Winchester/Berglund.
With Johnson back in the lineup, here's how the D shapes up:
Ian Cole-Eric Brewer
Barret Jackman-Erik Johnson
Carlo Colaiacovo-Tyson Strachan
Jaroslav Halak is in goal for the Blues. Halak (12-8-4) has only faced the Sharks twice, but he has sparkled, going 2-0-0 with a 1.00 goals-against average and .973 save percentage. He blanked the Sharks 2-0 here on Nov. 4.
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The Sharks, coming off a 4-3 overtime victory in Dallas Thursday, will be a challenge for the Blues.
The Sharks come in sixth in the league in power play efficiency (21.8 percent).
"You have to be good in special teams. That's where it starts," Payne said. "They have a very good power play, they put a lot of pressure on you on the PK, so we're going to have to handle that and be disciplined in those areas.
"A lot of big skill up front, especially with that top line. You've got to find a way to make sure the body position is in the correct place and making sure that you've got awareness with some of the things that can come from the back players and on rushes. It's the same type of defensive awareness when you're playing top, quality teams like this that we have to have every night."
The Sharks appear to have broken up the big first line of Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley:
Torrey Mitchell-Joe Thornton-Dany Heatley
Ryane Clowe-Logan Couture-Patrick Marleau
Jamie McGinn-Joe Pavelski-Devin Setoguchi
Benn Ferriero-Scott Nichol-Jamal Mayers
Marc-Edouard Vlasic-Dan Boyle
Jason Demers-Kent Huskins
Niclas Wallin-Justin Braun
Antero Niittymaki (10-3-3) will make a second straight start tonight. He's 2-1-0 with a 3.02 GAA and .902 save percentage in his career against the Blues.