ST. LOUIS -- Another day when the suns comes up -- or in the case lately in St. Louis, the clouds and precipitation burst -- the Blues are dealing with yet another injury to a key member of their squad.
Defenseman Erik Johnson is the latest to join the list of the walking wounded after suffering a lower-body injury in the first period of Wednesday's 5-2 loss at Detroit.
Johnson, who leads the Blues in average minutes per game (22 minutes 28 seconds), got his left leg tangled up with the Red Wings' Pavel Datsyuk and went down awkwardly. He was able to skate off -- albeit gingerly -- on his own power but he was definitely favoring something.
Blues coach Davis Payne said Thursday afternoon after the team's optional skate prior to facing the Los Angeles Kings tonight (7 p.m. on FSN, KMOX 1120-AM) that Johnson, 22, was being evaluated by team doctors and more would be known later on today. He will not play tonight. The team has recalled defenseman Nikita Nikitin from Peoria and he will be in the lineup tonight and placed center Andy McDonald (concussion) on injured reserve retroactive to Dec. 4.
"We'll continue to get some further evaluation this afternoon before we get a clear picture as to exactly what's going on," Payne said. "... We don't want to label anything. We don't want to call anything short-term or long-term until we get all the scans done and all the evaluations done by the doctors. Once we get all that information, we'll get a better idea and certainly a word on how long we can anticipate it being."
Johnson joins a list that includes forwards David Perron (concussion), McDonald and T.J. Oshie (broken ankle) along with defensemen Roman Polak (wrist) and Alex Pietrangelo (upper-body) on the shelf for the team currently. Defensemen Barret Jackman (knee) and Carlo Colaiacovo (concussion) along with forward Cam Janssen (concussion) have also spent time on the sidelines this season.
Going into tonight's game, the Blues (14-10-5) will have missed 103 man-games due to injury.
"Maybe we're in a little bit more of the severe end of the spectrum, but they're not going to give us any sympathy for having guys injured tonight," said forward David Backes, who was dinged up last night after taking a shot off the leg. "We can't think that or else it'll be ugly. We need to bring our battle and bring our game."
"It's starting to feel like where it's one of those things that it's almost normal," Payne said. "The guys have to pick it up, guys like Nikitin and (Ian) Cole and (Tyson) Strachan that step into these extra minutes and get the job done for us."
Nikitin, 24, made 12 appearances with the Blues earlier this season without recording a point. While in Peoria , the Omsk, Russia native played in four games and scored one goal and had a plus-1 rating.
"Nikitin's a guy who's played well and understands the structure and system," Payne said. "He's done a very good job for us. A trip down and some games under his belt and now a chance to be back as we have with a lot of these young guys. Here's a chance to re-establish himself and put a good performance on the ice for us."
So the Blues will go into tonight’s game against the Kings (17-10-1) with Eric Brewer, Jackman, Colaiacovo, Cole, Strachan and Nikitin as their six d-men -- or half of the starting six.
"It's not easy to deal with," Payne said, regarding the injuries. "We've got some key players out of our lineup. As difficult as it makes it, we're not going to sit here and say two points is unobtainable. We're going to make sure we've got a plan in place and these guys know that. The expectations are that we're going to play extremely well as a group and find a way to get those two points. Make no bones about it, the guys that are out of our lineup are key players. That does make a difference.
"Hopefully, we got away with our injuries here in the first half of the season and we can make a strong push towards the end," Backes said. "That being said, even with those key guys out, we've done a good job of simplifying and playing hard and getting a few critical points against some good teams."
- - -
Speaking of Pietrangelo, who is thought to be ailing from a shoulder injury but the team lists it as an upper-body injury, he skated with the team today and worked out hard.
However, Payne ruled him out for tonight's game with a possibility that Saturday's home game against San Jose a target. Pietrangelo is listed as day-to-day.
"I felt pretty good out there today," said Pietrangelo, who leads Blues defensemen on assists (12) and points (15). "We'll see how it feels tomorrow."
"Another step here, but still out for tonight," Payne said. "We'll see what that takes us to a day from now and how that lines up for San Jose."
With the needed blue-liners, Pietrangelo may want to get back in the lineup sooner than he can. He was initially injured a week ago today in a win over Columbus after absorbing a hit from the Blue Jackets' Rick Nash.
"It doesn't have anything to do with more guys getting injured," Pietrangelo said. "Everybody wants to get back on the ice as soon as possible.
"It's tough to see this many guys out right now, but other guys are stepping up and we're still winning some hockey games here."
- - -
Another skater on the ice today was Polak, who has been out since having tendons severed on his right wrist Oct. 23 against Pittsburgh.
Polak, arguably the Blues' best shutdown defensemen, had surgery to repair the tendon damage and is still on course to be re-evaluated in early January.
"I think you can definitely say there's progress," Payne said. "Just how much and how much there is to go, he's got to get back here to the doctors in the next little bit and really have a chance to see exactly what's gone on, how much healing has taken place and what the next step is as far as ramping up the on-ice stuff goes.
"We're not getting ahead of ourselves. Progress has been made. We've got to get that evaluation to determine how much more progress we need."
- - -
Blues forward Adam Cracknell, who made his NHL debut Wednesday night in Detroit, earned favorable marks upon his entry into the league.
Cracknell, who was a plus-1 in the game playing on the fourth line with Chris Porter and Dave Scatchard, nearly scored his first NHL point but rung a shot off the post.
"I felt pretty comfortable after warm-up," Cracknell said. "I just kind of took it all in. It's definitely a tough team to play against. It would have been nice to get the win, but I felt really good out there. The skating felt well, the timing and everything like that. I felt really good."
Cracknell, who played 5:54 in the game, played in front of family, as did Cole.
"I thought he handled himself very well," Payne said of Cracknell. "I thought that line was very cohesive as a group. I thought they supported each other well, I thought they put the pucks to the right areas, I thought they fore-checked well. Maybe on one offensive decision, I would have rather them kept the puck a little bit deeper, but they have a scoring chance, they end up plus-1 on Carlo's goal and again, I thought they handled themselves in their own zone very, very well, which is always key against Detroit. Good job by them. They gave us exactly what we needed."
- - -
Strachan, who was a healthy scratch in six of the eight games prior to Wednesday, will get the chance to earn his keep in the Blues' lineup now with Johnson out for an unknown amount of time.
"Obviously, it's tough to see guys go down, but guys like me need to step in and do the job," Strachan said. "We weren't able to do that last night, but excited about getting back out there tonight and turning the table.
"It's amazing, but (injuries are) a part of hockey. Guys are going to get hurt. It's pretty crazy to look at it from our side of it right now. I think we went through that two seasons ago and made that big playoff run. I don't think it's anything that counts anyone out. I think we have a lot of depth here and guys that can step in and do the job."
- - -
With all the man-games lost to injury, the Blues will continue to work whatever combinations they can muster up.
With Johnson out, that puts a wrinkle into the defensive pairings, and the forwards continue to battle through the best they can as well.
"It's not ideal, but you don't have a top line or any line that's been together for one year, let alone some guys four or five years with a (Ryan) Getzlaf, (Corey) Perry and (Bobby) Ryan," Backes said, referring to the Anaheim Ducks' top line. "They've played together for three or four years now. They pretty much know where each other's going to be without looking. We're kind of having to patch different places and fill different roles and guys moving up and down the lineup all the time to fill these voids.
"It's no excuse. We talk a little bit more, we communicate and let each other know and simplify our game. We can be just as effective as those guys that have been together."
- - -
With the Blues holding an optional, no line combinations were visible today, but expect a lineup pretty similar to last night (although there was word Janssen might sneak into the lineup tonight):
Vladimir Sobotka-David Backes-Brad Boyes
Brad Winchester-Patrik Berglund-B.J. Crombeen
Alex Steen-Jay McClement-Matt D'Agostini
Chris Porter-Dave Scatchard-Adam Cracknell/Cam Janssen
The defensive pairings could look different tonight; here's a guess:
Ian Cole-Eric Brewer
Barret Jackman-Carlo Colaiacovo
Nikita Nikitin-Tyson Strachan
Ty Conklin, who last saw action Nov. 30 in a 7-5 loss at Chicago, gets the nod tonight. Jaroslav Halak had started seven straight. Conklin, who is 2-2-1 on the season with a 3.38 goals-against average and .866 save percentage, is 5-1-0 with a 2.01 GAA and .924 save percentage for his career against the Kings.
- - -
The Kings, who last played on Monday night and have been in St. Louis since Tuesday, are 4-0-1 in their last five after drubbing Detroit 5-0.
"Real good depth. Offensive production from the blue line. Obviously with some of the size they have up front, it creates a different problem in that they have a group that plays a big-body game down low," Payne said of the Kings. "So we've got to do a real good job defending. They have one of the best net front presences in the league in my opinion in (Ryan) Smyth. Another element there that we saw a little bit of last night with the (Tomas) Holmstroms and the (Johan) Franzens, he's right along those lines. (Drew) Doughty from the back end with the ability to carry the puck up ice and make plays. Their goaltender had a pretty good night a couple nights ago in Detroit, so we've got to find a way to bust through that too."
The Kings are expected to roll out the following lines:
Dustin Brown-Anze Kopitar-Justin Williams
Alexei Ponikarovsky-Michal Handzus-Wayne Simmonds
Ryan Smyth-Jarret Stoll-Oscar Moller
Kyle Clifford-Trevor Lewis-Kevin Westgarth
Their d-pairings should look like this:
Jack Johnson-Willie Mitchell
Rob Scuderi-Drew Doughty
Alec Martinez-Davis Drewiske
Matt Greene was a scratch from the Kings' defensive unit with an upper-body injury suffered Monday night in Detroit.
Jonathan Quick, who is 1-3-1 with a 2.91 goals-against average and .894 save percentage for his career against the Blues, will make his eighth consecutive start tonight. He's 15-5-1 with a 1.83 GAA and .933 save percentage for the season.