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Werenski dishes out four assists in first game back from injury

by Brian Hedger @JacketsInsider /

It was a preseason dress rehearsal, it was another crazy game between the Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins and it was really entertaining - for a preseason game.

The Blue Jackets' 7-6 victory Friday at Nationwide Arena was also something else.

"It was a slopfest, that's what it was," Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said. "It certainly gives both teams tape, as far as to look at, as we get ready. And it's really what I wanted, quite honestly. There [were] a lot of special teams. So, it gives us some things that we can work with, and at the end of preseason that's what you want."

In all, there were nine penalties and nine power plays, including six for Columbus (1-for-6) and three for Pittsburgh (1-for-3). There were also a combined 13 goals, on 66 shots, and the Blue Jackets outshot the Penguins 37-29.

There were also three guys racking up four points each for Columbus, as Zach Werenski (four assists), Artemi Panarin (two goals, two assists) and Cam Atkinson (one goal, three assists) led the way.

As preseason games go, it was a basically a must-see event - brimming with NHL talent, including a near full lineup for the Blue Jackets and the Penguins bringing stars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel.

They also brought former Blue Jackets center Derrick Brassard, who led Pittsburgh with two goals, one assist and three points.

"We talked and we were both going to play both our teams, so we could get some work done," Tortorella said, referring to Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, one of his former assistant coaches. "I'm not sure what it was, but we're going to get some work done after it. So, it was good."

It might've been sloppy, defensively, but it sure kept the crowd into it. Not only was it overstocked with goals and penalties, but there were even a few post-whistle skirmishes.

As Tortorella noted, each side has plenty of video to break down now - and not all good. Not all bad either, though.

First, the good stuff for Columbus - which welcomed Werenski back to the ice after offseason shoulder surgery. It looked like he'd played every single one of the Jackets' preseason games, assisting on all three Jackets goals in the first period and finishing with four - two primary assists and two secondaries.

"It's no surprise to me," Atkinson said. "I knew he was hurt all of last year, so you could tell from his rookie year how good he was going to eventually be, as soon as he got a little stronger, more mature and played some games. He's a guy that can control the play. He's very quiet. He always makes the right play, is always in good position and when he's up the ice like that, it's a deadly threat."

The Jackets' top line was pretty lethal too, particularly Panarin and Atkinson. The chemistry between those two was the same as it was in the final two months of last season - when Panarin pushed past Rick Nash's franchise single-season scoring mark and Atkinson stayed red hot after returning from a broken foot.

Panarin is on the last year of his current contract and could become an unrestricted free agent July 1, 2019, but his teammates aren't going to let that happen without some good-natured recruiting pitches.

Asked if he ever nudges Panarin on the bench following great plays, telling him to stay in Columbus, Atkinson laughed.

"Yeah, well, every shift," he said. "Even if we don't score. I'm like, 'Hey, let's go.' It's part of the process, you know? It's not going to happen overnight with him. I love playing with him and I'm sure he'll tell you he loves playing with me and [Pierre-Luc Dubois] - especially when we have a night like tonight, when we're finding each other and that chemistry is there. It's fun hockey. We've just got to keep getting better and keep steering him into the right direction."

Boone Jenner and captain Nick Foligno steered pucks in the right direction Friday night, into the Penguins' net for goals - including Foligno's to knot it 5-5 at 10:06 of the second period on a 5-on-3 power play.

It wasn't all good for the Blue Jackets, though. Slopfests usually have two sides.

Brassard scored his two goals wearing a Penguins uniform for the first time in his former home rinks, while Pittsburgh's other goals were scored by Crosby, Carl Hagelin, Patrick Hornqvist and Bryan Rust - who put the Penguins up 6-5 just 2:13 into the third period.

At the business end of all those goals, manning the net for Columbus, was goalie Sergei Bobrovsky - who played the entire game and allowed six goals on 29 shots. He also faced numerous breakaways and uncontested scoring chances, as the Penguins turned a number of errant passes and fumbled pucks into goals.

The Jackets also lost another defenseman to injury, as Scott Harrington left with an upper-body injury after getting hit on his first shift. He didn't return.

Columbus is also without Seth Jones for four to six weeks with a sprained MCL and Ryan Murray is out with a groin injury.

"What about [Harrington], how bad do you feel for him?" Tortorella said. "That was his only shift and he's hurt. We'll re-evaluate [Saturday]. I just feel terrible for the kid. He knows with 'Jonesy' and 'Murr' out, he's fighting for a spot to play and I feel bad for him."

Good thing Werenski's back, even though the defensive performance as a whole had some hiccups. It wasn't exactly the kind of performance the coaching staff hoped to see, defensively, but the Jackets did show resilience.

It could've been a rout had Columbus not battled back from quick-strike goals and multiple deficits - after coughing up leads of 2-1 and 3-2 of their own in the first.

"When we were up, we kind of gave leads away - which we don't want to do - but when we were down we found ways to come back, score and win a hockey game," said Werenski, whose final assist led to Bjorkstrand's game-winner with 3:56 left in the third. "Obviously, next week guys are going to go a little bit harder, a little bit more physical and play a little more desperate, but I think this was a great tune-up game for us. We've just got to clean some things up this next week."

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