ST. LOUIS -- When Andy McDonald was healthy enough to get back in the lineup, Blues coach David Payne wasted little time assembling the line that was hitting its stride.
McDonald, David Backes and Brad Boyes were clicking before McDonald suffered a concussion on Dec. 4. The trio have since been matched up in three games and the results are notable: seven combined points and a plus-7 rating.
Backes has two goals in back-to-back games and is plus-1, McDonald has a pair of assists and is plus-3 and Boyes has a goal and two assists and is also plus-3. Even though the line hasn't been grouped together for every game this season, the trio are a combined plus-29 on the season.
"The combination seems to work with a big body like myself trying to create space for those guys to maneuver with the puck," Backes said. "Like you saw in Florida, Andy McDonald pretty much did everything on that goal. I just knocked it in the back door. They're fun guys to play with. When we're playing well, I think we can play against or with anyone."
Payne said it was only natural to group them together once again.
"They're a group that's comfortable playing together," he said. "Obviously with Backs in the middle, his solid two-way play giving a chance for Andy McDonald to handle some pucks and make some plays. He's a guy that can create some of his own space so we feel that that lends into Boysie getting into the right areas.
"They played well during that stretch prior to Andy getting hurt. We had to break them up knowing that if there was an opportunity to get them back together, it was a group that we'd go back to."
With the Blues getting healthy again, it's a chance to balance out the forward lines and a chance to balance out the scoring.
But make no mistake, this unit sets the tone.
"When you're the top line on the team, you have that responsibility," Backes said. "We're paid pretty well to perform and produce. That's what we expect. There's nobody on this team that's going to carry us all the way. We expect to provide our portion and do what's called upon by us, and that's performing every night, that's making things happen that are positive for our team.
"It's always better when we're together longer. It's a work in progress. Some lines have been together for four, five, six years. Those guys have real chemistry. We've got some, but it's still something that's progressing."
Boyes has nine points (eight assists) in his last seven games overall but has four goals and four assists in the last eight games against Minnesota, tonight's opponent.
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The Blues activated Carlo Colaiacovo off injured reserve and the defenseman will be in the lineup tonight when the Blues (24-20-8) host the Minnesota Wild (28-20-5) at 7 p.m. (FSN, KMOX 1120-AM).
But instead of sitting a healthy defenseman tonight, the Blues will play seven d-men and will go with 11 forwards, which means Cam Janssen is the odd-man out.
"The rotation will come off of certain matchups depending on how (the Wild are) going but mostly special teams. Part of the reason is ... we're not going to talk about who but conditioning and health is always a concern. That's our reason.
"Carlo's part of the equation. We won't elaborate much further on anything else."
Defenseman Eric Brewer blocked a shot in Tuesday's game at Florida and missed a portion of the third period but Brewer did participate fully in Thursday's practice. Today's morning skate was optional and missing from the skate were Brewer, Erik Johnson, Roman Polak and Barret Jackman.
Regarding the 11 forwards in the lineup, Payne said it boils down to using a skill guy to grab some extra time, whether it be McDonald, Vladimir Sobotka or T.J. Oshie down the middle.
"There will be some flex there," Payne said. "Whether Beener continues to play in the middle, we've got guys who can fill in and can play a few extra minutes there. We've got lots of guys we can rotate into the middle as well. We've used Sobotka in that role, we used Andy McDonald in that role, Osh can step in there and play in the middle as well. I feel like we've got lots of options. It's an extra piece of ice time for some of our skill players. Here at home, hopefully we can get some matchups out of that."
As for Colaiacovo, who felt like he was ready to play Tuesday, he'll wear a full cage tonight for the first time and not even notice it's there.
"I don't worry about it, I don't think about it," he said. "Just let the game come to you and play the game. I consider myself real fortunate to even be out there at this moment. That's all I take pride in. The thought of just being a hockey player is real enthusiastic right now. At the end of the day, that's all I want to be. Whatever it takes to be it, so be it."
Colaiacovo and Nikita Nikitin will likely split time on the power play tonight.
"I think both guys will get a look there," Payne said. "That one unit that's had (Alex Steen) and Nicky will probably get some tweaking going on, just depending on how things are going. We want to maintain as much continuity as possible. But again, effectiveness is the crucial factor."
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The Blues' forward lines will remain relatively the same with the exception of Janssen:
Andy McDonald-David Backes-Brad Boyes
Alex Steen-Patrik Berglund-T.J. Oshie
Vladimir Sobotka-Jay McClement-Matt D'Agostini
Brad Winchester-xxxxxxxxx-B.J. Crombeen
The d-pairings will be tweaked a bit:
Barret Jackman-Roman Polak
Erik Johnson-Alex Pietrangelo
Carlo Colaiacovo/Nikita Nikitin-Eric Brewer
Jaroslav Halak will make his first career start against the Wild tonight.
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The Wild, in ninth place in the Western Conference, is 17-9-1 since dropping five straight in late November-early December.
Tonight will mark the first game between the teams this season. They will face one another again Saturday at 8 p.m. in Minnesota.
The Wild will roll out the following lineup:
Andrew Brunette-Mikko Koivu-Antti Miettinen
Cal Clutterbuck-Kyle Brodziak-Martin Havlat
Pierre-Marc Bouchard-Matt Cullen-Chuck Kobasew
Eric Nystrom-John Madden-Brad Staubitz
Guillaume Latendresse (lower-body) and James Sheppard (knee) continue to sit out long-term injuries. Marco Scandella (concussion) will miss his 10th straight game.
Defensive pairings include:
Brent Burns-Nick Schultz
Clayton Stoner-Greg Zanon
Cam Barker-Jared Spurgeon
Defenseman Marek Zidlicky (shoulder) will miss his 18th consecutive game.
Jose Theodore, who is 1-5-1 with a 4.20 goals-against average and .847 save percentage against the Blues, gets the start tonight instead of Niklas Backstrom.