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Confident Wennberg has helped kick-start Blue Jackets' start

Center has gotten off to strong beginning for Columbus

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Alexander Wennberg grabbed the puck at the offensive blue line and, 15 seconds later, he put it in the back of the Blue Jackets' net. 

It's what he did in those 15 seconds during the Oct. 16 game vs. Dallas that has someone like head coach John Tortorella so excited. 

First, Wennberg saw the puck and, instead of dumping it in, decided to try to power past Stars defenseman and fellow countryman John Klingberg along the wall. Wennberg chipped the puck ahead a few feet, pushed off Klingberg with an extension of his right arm and reclaimed the puck as it neared the left corner. 

From there, Wennberg kept skating it on his forehand, taking it behind the net, playing it into space in the right corner and then reclaiming it as he turned up the wall. 

Joe Pavelski tried to meet Wennberg as he neared the half-wall, but the Blue Jackets center quickly fed the puck to a wide-open David Savard as he glided along the blue line. 

Savard's one-timer was blocked before it ever got to the net, and Jamie Oleksiak tried to collect the puck and skate it out of the CBJ offensive zone. But, pressured by Jakob Lilja, Oleksiak couldn't corral the puck and Wennberg quickly jumped on it. 

He cut past Andrew Cogliano, deked away from Rhett Gardner's poke-check attempt in the slot, and quickly unleashed a shot from the left circle that got by the glove of goaltender Ben Bishop, giving Columbus a 2-0 lead in a game the Blue Jackets would eventually win 3-2. 

Video: DAL@CBJ: Wennberg gets past defenders and scores

In one play, it was everything the Blue Jackets had hoped to see this season from Wennberg. Strong possession along the wall. The vision to find the open man. The will to track down the puck and stay on it. And, finally, a decisive shot that the goaltender couldn't stop. 

"He's played well," Tortorella said of the 25-year-old. "As we've talked about, he entered camp with the right mind-set. You could tell, as I repeatedly said, he is concentrating on the things that have been talked about for over a year now.  

"Honestly, I just think he's sick of conversations. I think he feels good about himself. We all know what he can be as a player, as he's shown. I think he's just going about his business." 

For his part, Wennberg confirms one thing Tortorella has said -- he agrees the time for talk is over. 

In interviews over the course of the beginning of the campaign, Wennberg has preferred not to look back too much on what was essentially a lost season a year ago. It started rough and never really got better, and by the end, he had two goals, 25 points and was a healthy scratch to begin the postseason. When he did get in the playoffs, he had four games, zero points and zero shots on goal. 

He was a player the coaching staff spent most of last year trying to alternatey encourage and cajole through the tough times, but it just never clicked. But immediately after the conclusion of the campaign, Wennberg joined Team Sweden at the World Championships and the offensive mojo came back, including three goals and 10 points at the tournament.  

Whether that was just the shot in the arm needed or whatever it may be, Wennberg's momentum has continued into the early season. In nine games, he has two goals -- matching last year's total with Monday's tying goal in the third period -- and three assists for five points. He's increased his faceoff percentage to a career-high of 50.8 percent.  

He's also built chemistry with winger Oliver Bjorkstrand, though it seems likely he skates tonight vs. Carolina with wingers Gustav Nyquist and Josh Anderson. 

"Confidence is big, obviously," he said. "It helps in your game. There's a couple more things I want to add to it, but obviously I feel good right now. Right now, there is a new line, but before I had a good line, we had some confidence and we were playing good hockey. Right now, that's all you have to do. Don't try to overthink it, don't try to focus on anything too much other than just playing hockey." 

More than the statistical improvement, Wennberg looks like a different player in the offensive zone. Holding on to pucks, as he did with the Dallas goal or when he helped set up an early score vs. Carolina, has been a key to his game. Wennberg is on pace for 109 shots on goal and 173 shot attempts, which would be his best showing in each of those stats since his career 59-point season in 2016-17.  

In addition, according to Sean Tierney's shot maps, his average shot distance has gotten closer to the net. In part because of a new spot at the net front on the team's power play, Wennberg's average shot distance has gone from 32.98 feet a season ago to 24.17 this year, also showing more of an ability to get to the areas he needs to get, as Wennberg put it. 

"That's one thing I think Wenny has really improved at," Tortorella said. "He's not only going to the puck. He's not getting rid of it. He's holding onto it, taking a hit, rolling out, crawling up the wall in the offensive zone. He's doing a lot of good things after the hit." 

Add in what is his customary strong defensive play and penalty killing and the Blue Jackets and the team is happy to see everything coming together for the talented center. 

"He's playing really well for us right now offensively and defensively," Zach Werenski said. "He's playing a 200-foot game, and I'm really happy for him. I'm sure last year was a little bit tough for him, so the start he's on right now, it's really good to see." 

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