Zach Werenski is playing his first games as a professional hockey player this spring, and it’s safe to say he’s made the most of it.
On top of that, he's doing so in a high-pressure playoff run...as an 18-year-old.
After scoring one goal in seven regular season games with the Lake Erie Monsters, Werenski has worked his way to the top of the team’s points lead with four goals and seven assists in eleven playoff games.
His most recent contribution came on the game-winning goal in Game 1 of AHL Western Conference Finals versus the defending Calder Cup champion Ontario Reign on Saturday night.
Werenski held the puck at the left point, and rather than dumping it behind the net, made an alert play toward Reign goaltender Peter Budaj that produced a slam-dunk rebound for Alex Broadhurst.
That goal came with 11:30 to play in the third period after the Reign battled back from a 3-1 deficit to tie the game. Monsters captain Ryan Craig, who added a goal and an assist of his own earlier in the game, said the team knew Ontario would come out desperate.
“I loved the response when we went up 4-3,” Craig said. “We found a way to get it done and in the playoffs, that’s the main thing.”
Craig has had the opportunity to watch Werenski show what he is all about on and off the ice, and so far, he’s been nothing but impressed.
“He’s a great kid. He’s a mature 18-year-old in a man’s league,” Craig said. “We can’t say enough about what he’s brought to our team – he continues to get better each and every day.
“He’s a great kid to be around. He wants to be around our group. He came to our team to be a part of this and I think he’s enjoying it.”
Werenski isn't interested in talking about himself or his own personal success, and is quick to deflect the attention back to the Monsters – a group he says has helped him understand what to expect in the type of games that lead to the Calder Cup Final.
“I feel like I contribute, and that’s always good,” Werenski said. “But without my teammates it wouldn’t happen. We’ve got to just keep moving forward.”
But the numbers can’t be denied when it comes to how the 2015 first-round draft pick has been contributing.
Werenski’s assist on Saturday marked the eighth time in 11 Monsters postseason games when he added a point. It also put him second in AHL playoff rookie scoring, just three points behind Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Jake Guentzel, who was eliminated in the Atlantic Division Finals.
In the postseason, Werenski is tied with Daniel Zaar and Oliver Bjorkstrand for the team lead in game winning goals (2), and his points per game rate leads the team overall. Werenski is also second among all AHL defensemen and seventh overall in points per game in the playoffs.
Werenski’s scoring streak that started on May 10 ended Sunday in Game 2, but he did have three shots on goal, and more importantly, the Monsters escaped a 3-2 victory and will now return home to Cleveland with a 2-0 series advantage and three home games this week (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at Quicken Loans Arena).
As for Werenski, Monsters head coach Jared Bednar has been talking about him quite a bit these days.
“He’s doing a little bit of everything,” Bednar said. “The skill set he has: his size, strength and poise with the puck, he’s a complete player. To be able to step into our lineup in intense games and get the job done, it’s impressive especially for his age and that’s why everyone’s so excited about him.
“He’s a young guy. He’s going to grow a lot, but right now, to be able to do what he’s doing at this level at this time of year is pretty impressive.”