Conor Sheary #43 of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Zach Werenski #8 of the Columbus Blue Jackets battle for the puck in Game One of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG Paints Arena on April 12, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH – Zach Werenski shot the puck so many times Wednesday night in his first playoff game he could have been mistaken for the star player who injured him less than two weeks ago.
Showing no ill effects from an apparent shoulder injury suffered in a collision with Alex Ovechkin, the 19-year-old defenseman attempted an outrageous 12 shots, placing six on goal, in a 3-1 loss to the Penguins in a postseason opener at PPG Paints Arena.
Werenski was among the few bright spots on a night the Jackets failed to capitalize on early chances and succumbed to a three-goal second period. He not only emerged from the game healthy, but played with the same poise against the defending champions in the postseason as he does the Florida Panthers in November.
Coach John Tortorella was effusive in his praise of the rookie’s return after missing the final four regular season games.
“What can you say about him?” Tortorella said of Werenski, who logged 25-plus minutes. “He hasn’t played (for a few games), he’s a 19-year-old kid, and I thought he put on a show. I thought his determination and the things he does . . . I hope it rubs off on other people on our team because that was inspiring to me to see what that kid can do.”
Werenski was more subdued in his assessment in part because the Blue Jackets’ offensive struggles from the regular season have bled into the playoffs. They have failed to score more than two goals in nine of the last 12 games.
The Jackets blitzed the Penguins in the first period, outshooting them 16-3, but they couldn’t beat Marc-Andre Fleury, who started in place of an injured Matt Murray. Werenski had one of the best chances from the right faceoff circle at 7:32 only to be denied by the veteran goaltender.
His first playoff game taught him how quickly momentum can turn in April. The Penguins scored twice in the first four minutes of the second period after being outplayed in the opening period.
“I thought we did everything we could to score except put it in the net,” Werenski said. “Obviously, it’s tough when you have a period like that and don’t capitalize on your chances. (Fleury) stood tall in there. When they got their chances, they capitalized and that was the difference tonight.”
The Jackets have 10 players in their first postseason tournament. It would have been bitterly disappointing if Ovechkin’s huge hit on April 2 robbed him of the opportunity to experience the playoffs with his young teammates.
Werenski said he felt fine after the game. If his shoulder stiffens, it might be the result of all those shots attempted.
“(Moving the puck) low to high seemed to be open quite a bit,” said Werenski who had four shots blocked. “We were using that. I’m always ready to shoot so I felt like I was putting a lot of pucks on nets.”
Werenski gets another shot here Friday. The kid is not out to inspire. He just wants to win.