By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Righty and righty, lefty with lefty. It would make more sense to mix and match, but with the Blues, it's all about finding the right fit and making it work.
Conventional wisdom says don't play a pair of right-handers (Erik Johnson and Alex Pietrangelo) together or play lefties Eric Brewer and Carlo Colaiacovo or Nikita Nikitin together.
But Blues coach Davis Payne has been using Johnson and Pietrangelo together in recent games. They were out there together in practice Thursday at St. Louis Mills, and Brewer was working with his fellow left-handed shots Colaiacovo and Nikitin. The only opposite sticks paired together were Barret Jackman (left) and Roman Polak (right).
Johnson and Pietrangelo have really seemed to find a niche playing together. And neither seems to care who plays left and who plays the right side.
What's best for the team's success is what's best for them.
"I think we've really enjoyed it," Johnson said. "Even though we're both righties, it doesn't matter what side we get out on when we get out there. I can get on the right and he can be on the left or he can be in the right and I can be on the left. ... We're both good-skating, puck-moving defensemen. We read off each other really well. I know we both really like playing together."
Johnson, the 2006 top overall pick and Pietrangelo, the No. 4 selection in the 2008 draft, have seen their duties increase since being matched together and both are picking up important responsibilities along the way while learning on the fly.
Johnson's never played the left side in the NHL. Other than experimenting with it in juniors, it's a first.
"I think I skate a little bit better coming up that left side," Johnson said. "Probably the biggest adjustment is your passing's more behind you because you have to get a little bit more wood on the pass instead of bringing the puck back almost to the back of you. It can be a little bit more difficult, but it's just something we've got to work on. It's an advantage to be able to play both sides. The coaches can use you in a lot of different situations."
"If the coaches want to put me there and I'm capable of doing it, it just gives me a lot more options of where I can play. ... I do like it. Playing with Petro, another young guy ... we really like playing together. It doesn't matter who plays on what side."
* Colaiacovo ready to return -- Defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo, who's had his share of injuries that includes the latest of one: being hit in the left eye with a puck, is set to return to the lineup tonight against the Minnesota Wild.
Colaiacovo, who also has missed nine games with a concussion and two more games after being hit in the mouth with an errant puck, missed seven games following this latest injury but has been practicing with the team for the last week.
"I think conditioning's come along," Payne said. "With the facial protection, the eye's to a point where he can get back in there."
Colaiacovo will initially wear a caged helmet, to protect the eye while it's still healing, but doctors have cleared him for action.
* Strachan clears waivers -- Defenseman Tyson Strachan, placed on waivers on Wednesday, has cleared and has been assigned to Peoria.
Defenseman Nikita Nikitin has played well in his latest call-up from Peoria and the Blues are impressed with his recent play.
"He's played pretty good hockey," Payne said of Nikitin. "He's done what we've asked of him. He's provided a spark, he's put some pucks on net that we've needed. He's handled himself in defensive situations better and better. There's a comfort level out there with him. That's why he's here."
The Blues will have seven healthy defensemen available tonight It was not known immediately which one would sit, but there was some talk that the Blues could dress all seven d-men and only 11 forwards.