By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- When Blues defenseman Barret Jackman laces up the boots tonight, he will become the all-time franchise leader in games played among defensemen when he plays in Game No. 616.
Jackman, who will pass Bobby Plager into fifth place all-time, trails Garry Unger for fourth place on the all-time franchise list. Bernie Federko (927), Brian Sutter (779) and Brett Hull (744) are Nos. 1-3 on the list.
"It's a huge honor," Jackman said. "I worked real hard just to get to the NHL and even harder to stay in. There's been injuries and that stuff you've had to play through and the business side of it with double lockouts. But to be up there with Barclay Plager, Bobby Plager, Al MacInnis, Chris Pronger and what they mean to the franchise is pretty cool and for me to do it with the No. 5 on my back and the Bluenote on my chest ... and Bobby Plager did it [with No. 5], is even more special."
I will have more on Jackman's milestone on Sunday, with comments from teammate Alex Pietrangelo, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, Bobby Plager and former Blues president and current Columbus Blue Jackets president John Davidson.
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The Blues (9-6-2) will be looking to snap an uncharacteristic five-game winless slump on home ice (0-4-1) today when they face the Blue Jackets (5-10-2) at 7 p.m. (FSN, KMOX 1120-AM).
The Blues haven't won at Scottrade Center since a 5-4 overtime win over Minnesota on Jan. 27. So they're oh-for-February here after going 30-6-5 on home ice a season ago.
"I just think it's a process," Hitchcock said. "We've played poorly in one and played well really well like we did against San Jose (a 2-1 loss Tuesday) and lost. I just think it's a process where we're 9-6, our record is what it is, we're probably not as good as we were at 6-1 and not as poor as we are right now with the record.
"We seemed to hit stumbling block. We had everything going from Vancouver and ran into the energy issue based on travel. Now we seem to have our energy back. I think we'll get a good read of where we're at today from an energy standpoint."
The Blues have allowed 22 non-shootout goals in those five home games, and scored only nine times themselves (five came in one game, a 6-5 shootout loss to Anaheim).
"We just need to find that game that we were so good at last year," said Pietrangelo, who's been on the ice for 10 of those recent 22 goals on home ice. "... We need to generate some energy in the building for the fans and our own bench.
"You go into every home game last year expecting to win, and we did. I think we've got to get back to that this year, especially right now. We can't let home be a disadvantage for us. That's what it's for, to be an advantage. That's what it was last year. ... Now we realize we can't just go out there and throw our sticks (on the ice) and expect to win. The Western Conference is too strong. Any team can beat you on any given night."
On the road, where the Blues are 6-2-1, Pietrangelo said, "We're keeping things more simple on the road. I think that's what it is. We know we've just got to take the energy out of their building. ... We're trying to take the energy away from their fans."
After Tuesday's loss against San Jose, Hitchcock was openly critical of both Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk, calling them "two of our best players," and that "they just both need to be better."
Both played well at Colorado, and Hitchcock hopes both can get back on track on home ice, along with the rest of the team.the
"I think when you have two defenseman that play so many minutes, you end up playing with your head and not your legs," Hitchcock said. "I think when they play with their legs, especially like they did in Colorado, then they're very effective. Sometimes when you know you're going to play a lot of minutes, you open up the game in a rocking chair.
"For us, we need them to just let us control the minutes and the time on the ice. They've got to check with their legs and move the puck with their legs. It's kind of move-your-feet, move-the-puck. I think when you know you're going to play a lot of minutes, you try and conserve your energy at key times and I think you end up stick-handling rather than moving your feet. I think they understand that now. Quite frankly, we need more guys to get more touches. We need the puck in their hands a little bit more, we need people deferring the puck to them more."
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Jaroslav Halak, who returned from a 19-day absence and stopped 19 of 20 shots in a 1-0 overtime loss Wednesday at Colorado, will get the start again tonight.
Hitchcock mentioned before this 48-game schedule that there's no time to be going back and forth between goalies. If one guy gets hot, he likely gets the bulk of the time in goal.
As Brian Elliott continues to work through his recent struggles, it's a chance for Halak to take the bull by the horns and become the workhorse.
"I think right now, it's hard to tell," Halak said. "I think the good thing is to go game-by-game and we'll see how it goes. Right now we've got one game and then we get five or six days off before the next game. In March and April, we've got so many games coming up and in a short period of time, so I think we're going to need both goalies."
Halak suffered a groin strain on Dec. 1 in Detroit and was scheduled to start Feb. 11 against the Los Angeles Kings but was a sudden scratch prior to the start of the game.
"I felt great the days before, even in the pre-game skate, but in the pre-game warmup, I started feeling my groin again a little bit so I didn't want to make it any worse," Halak said. "I didn't want to be out for two months; that would be pretty much the whole season. I needed to be careful and I'm glad to be back now.
"I wasn't thinking about the injury. You always wonder if it's going to come back or not. As of now, it felt great. We'll see how it goes tomorrow. I'm sure if I do the right things, I should be fine."
Halak, who is 3-0-1 with a 1.84 goals-against average and .902 save percentage, said he was ready to play in Vancouver last week but understood Hitchcock wanted to ride the hot hand of Jake Allen, who won his first three decisions in goal.
"I was ready on Sunday, but Jake was hot. I'm sure Hitch wanted to ride the hot goalie," Halak said. "He gave us a chance and played great games for us, even on Tuesday when we lost. He played a solid game for us. We just couldn't score goals.
"It was good to go back in on Wednesday. It sucks being out and just watching guys, but right now, I'm healthy and real happy to be back."
But Hitchcock cautioned: "All I know is he's playing tonight. It's one game, he played very sound. He said he saw the puck better than he saw it at the start of the year. He found the puck in traffic better, so that's a good sign. Probably if he played well tonight, we'd like to be playing him every second day with him playing a lot of the games. Once we start playing Thursday, there's no break for six weeks."
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With Vladimir Tarasenko's concussion/facial laceration injuries suffered in Colorado, it gave Hitchcock a more extensive look at Chris Stewart playing in Tarasenko's previous spot alongside Alex Steen and Andy McDonald.
Hitchcock had switched Tarasenko and Stewart in previous games, putting Tarasenko with Vladimir Sobotka and Patrik Berglund. He liked what he saw.
"I think it gives more definition to the line," Hitchcock said of Stewart with Steen and McDonald. "The line needs to be more of a cycle, end-zone line. With Vladi, it's a rush attack line. I really like Vladi with Sobotka and Berglund because Berglund and Sobotka are great cycle players, and Vladi's a great attack player, so that line was a double-threat. The little that it played together, that line looked really good. And then I like Stewart with Steen and McDonald because now you've got the end zone play, you've got net presence, you've got drive presence that wasn't there when Tarasenko was there. I like on paper what it looks like on paper, it's got double definition on the lines whereas before, both lines were kind of like they only had single definition in them."
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With the Blue Jackets in town, a former Blues flavor with Davidson, former director of amateur scouting Jarmo Kekalainen and defenseman Nikita Nikitin are representing the Blue Jackets.
Davidson is running the hockey operations with Columbus, like he did here in St. Louis and he recently fired general manager Scott Howson and hired Kekalainen in the GM role, as he becomes the first European GM in NHL history. And of course, Nikitin was traded to the Jackets early last season for Kris Russell, who along with Hitchcock and assistant coach Gary Agnew were part of the Jackets organization.
"Familiar faces, familiar feelings," Davidson said. "I got lost coming off the bus ... I didn't know which way to go. I had to have Nikitin get off first because I didn't know which way to go. You just have a long period of time coming in one way."
Davidson will always have a place to crash when in town, as his eldest daughter still lives here and will continue to do so.
"It's a good city, it's a really good city," Davidson said of St. Louis. "The two cities actually have a lot in common with Columbus and St. Louis. Really good people, really nice cities, pretty easy to get around.
"We had a great time here (from 2005-2012). It was a chapter in our life that was really, really good. It's always going to be good to come back here. A lot of friends, a lot of family now here. It's all good."
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The Blues' probable lineup:
David Perron-David Backes-T.J. Oshie
Andy McDonald-Alex Steen-Chris Stewart
Vladimir Sobotka-Patrik Berglund-Matt D'Agostini
Jaden Schwartz-Scott Nichol-Ryan Reaves
Ian Cole-Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman-Roman Polak
Kris Russell-Kevin Shattenkirk
Jaroslav Halak gets the start; Brian Elliott is the backup.
Blues scratches include defenseman Wade Redden and recently recalled forward Chris Porter. Injuries include Tarasenko, who was placed on injured reserve Friday and right wing Jamie Langenbrunner (hip), who's out for the season.
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The Blue Jackets' probable lineup:
RJ Umberger-Derick Brassard-Cam Atkinson
Vinny Prospal-Mark Letestu-Derek Dorsett
Matt Calvert-Sean Collins-Nick Foligno
Colton Gillies-Derek MacKenzie-Jared Boll
Fedor Tyutin-Nikita Nikitin
Jack Johnson-Adrian Aucoin
Tim Erixon-James Wisniewski
Sergei Bobrovsky gets his third consecutive start in goal; Steve Mason will be the backup.
Scratches include defenseman John Moore, and former Blues farmhand Nick Drazenovic. The Jackets' injury list includes center Artem Anisimov (head), who had a scary injury Thursday in Detroit but is reportedly doing well back in Columbus. Also, Brandon Dubinsky (knee) is on injured reserve.