Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella does not hand out compliments lightly, but throughout much of the 2016-2017 season, he has spoken highly of 19-year old rookie defenseman Zach Werenski.
And despite Werenski’s season coming to an abrupt and premature end because of a facial fracture suffered in a Game 3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs at Nationwide Arena Sunday, those compliments kept coming.
“That’s the first thing that comes out of his mouth, that he’s upset that he can’t play,” Tortorella said. “I’m joking with him, trying to take the pressure off of him during the timeout. I think it was a power play. I forget exactly the time on the clock.
“I said, ‘Can you see?’ He says, ‘I can see better if I take this mask off.’ I said, ‘I don’t think you can do that.’ I expressed myself last night about how I felt he handled himself there, and I’ve said it all along as we get more and more questions about that guy, about what type of pro he is. He is on a fast-track path to be one of the mainstays in this league.”
Zach Werenski continues strong rookie season with Columbus Blue Jackets
With 6:35 left in the second period, the Penguins evened the score at 3-3 when Bryan Rust put a snap shot behind Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. Early in the play, Werenski took a shot off the face from center Evgeni Malkin and remained down on the ice for several seconds, all while play was still alive.
Although left winger Brandon Saad controlled a rebound off of a shot from Malkin, Rust slapped at Saad’s stick and sent the puck into the net.
Despite skating off the ice and being attended to for the remainder of the period and second intermission, Werenski returned to the game, this time with a full shield, stitches and a welt the size of an egg underneath his right eye, which had been blackened.
“He’s a warrior,” Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno said. “I talk about leadership in different ways, and you’ve got a 19-year old kid showing a ton of leadership right there of what we are and what we expect in this room. I can’t say enough good things about him. It would’ve been nice to get him that win.”
Blue Jackets forward Matt Calvert knows a thing or two about suffering a facial injury and returning to the same game, as he did so earlier in the season. Eventually, Calvert scored the game-winning goal in that game, but even he drew inspiration from Werenski’s comeback against the Penguins.
“He’s 19 years old and someone to follow,” Calvert said. “When you see a guy do something like that, it’s inspirational and it’s something we can build off in here. You see a teammate do that and play through that kind of thing, it’s huge for team morale.
“It’s unbelievable. You’re getting I don’t know how many stitches. He takes a puck to the face and you’re just so pumped up from playing to begin with that it gives you a little extra adrenaline rush, so it was great to see him come back out.”