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Reunited Jones, Werenski playing big minutes for Blue Jackets

Defensive duo key part of Columbus' playoff push

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

Zach Werenski has a sense of how we got here.  

The pairing featuring Werenski and Seth Jones entered the season as the marquee defensive pairing for the Blue Jackets. After excelling together last year, the high-flying Werenski and Norris Trophy-contending Jones were the kind of combination Columbus could build around for years. 

And by early November of this year, they were no longer a pairing. 

We'll let Werenski take over from here.

Video: CBJ@CGY: Werenski buries wrister from the circle

"I think with me having shoulder surgery and maybe not being as sharp early on in the season and him being hurt early on, I don't think we were quite connected and I think it showed," he said. "We weren't really playing good as a pair." 

Then Jones built a connection with Ryan Murray, while Werenski had some chemistry with David Savard. Here's Werenski again. 

"Then Murr and Seth were playing good, me and Savy were playing good, and (Markus Nutivaara) and (Scott Harrington) we playing good, so we had our pairs." 

And then finally, Murray went down with an injury in mid-February. After the Jackets tried Jones with Nutivaara and Harrington at different times, by the March 3 game vs. Winnipeg, Jones and Werenski were back together. 

Now that we've again reached the end of the narrative, here's Zach again. 

"Then Murr goes down," Werenski said. "(Seth and I are) trying to find that chemistry again, and I think we found it right now." 

Thanks, Zach, for the help. 

Now, on to the bigger question: How are Werenski and Jones playing together? 

Pretty well, as Werenski said, considering the pairing came together just as the Blue Jackets were entering a nine-game stretch in which eight of the opponents are in playoff position. From facing opposition featuring Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (twice), Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron (twice), as well as Mark Schiefele, Mathew Barzal, Sebastian Aho and finally Johnny Gaudreau, it's been a bit of a gantlet for the Jackets' reunited top defensive corps. 

Since the Winnipeg game on March 3, when the pairing was reunited for good, Jones and Werenski have been plus-12 in scoring chances at 5-on-5, according to Natural Stat Trick, which creates the number by taking into account the location and type of shot. It's not a perfect measure, but it's a good general way to gauge whether the players on the ice are giving up chances or creating them.  

Looking at high-danger chances, as defined by Natural Stat Trick, things are even 27-27 over those nine games at 5-on-5 when the pairing is on the ice. For a pairing counted on in both ends, often playing against the best opposition, they're keeping pace at the very least. 

When it comes to the eye test, the two look much more comfortable together than they had earlier this season. That's not to say things have been perfect - the two were each minus-2 last night - but their games have meshed together in a way that has given head coach Tortorella the confidence to play them together.  

"We're playing a lot of minutes," Werenski said. "I think we're playing well. We're playing against teams' top lines, we're creating offense while doing it. What's the cliché -- the best way to play defense is making them play defense? I think we're finding our stride here." 

There's also the factor that some of the pairing's offensive game is returning, especially with Werenski, who has two goals and six assists for eight points in the last nine games after a 30-game scoring drought. The two combined for 32 goals last year and are down to 20 this year, but Werenski is starting to feel it offensively and was all over the puck vs. Calgary. 

"I feel better with the puck, and I feel better without it," Werenski said. "I'm just going out there to try to help them win right now, whatever it takes. This is crunch time right now." 

Jones, who has a goal and three assists since the two have been reunited, is fine with how Werenski has taken the bull by the horns offensively. 

"We always talk about being aggressive, jumping up and reading off of each other," Jones said. "If he's up on the play, I obviously have no issue with that. It's great for our team when he's aggressive, and I have no problem covering him and vice versa." 

With Murray still out indefinitely, for the Blue Jackets to get where they want to go, Jones and Werenski will play big minutes down the stretch. Their improved play has helped the other defensive pairs jell together as well, one reason the Blue Jackets as a team have allowed just 14 non-empty-net goals over the last eight games. 

"I think all of our defensemen are playing better, including those two," Tortorella said. 

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