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Werenski does it all to spark Blue Jackets in Game 2

Goal, assist, stand-up moment just a continuation of defenseman's growth

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

The question was simple, the answer even more direct. 

Did Zach Werenski think he'd ever have a Gordie Howe hat trick, let alone one while sparking the Blue Jackets to a playoff victory? 

"No," Werenski said after his goal, assist and fight were key parts of Columbus' 5-1 win in Game 2 on Friday night that allowed the Union Blue to take a 2-0 series lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning. 

And don't expect another in Game 3.  

Video: Zach Werenski

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"I'll probably never get one again, but it was a pretty cool moment tonight for sure," Werenski said. "(My teammates) were all pretty fired up. Everyone is calling me Gordie now. It's pretty funny." 

In fact, it was the first Gordie Howe hat trick in franchise playoff history, in part because it was the first fighting major in Columbus postseason annals. Werenski dropped the gloves with Tampa's 41-goal scorer Brayden Point late in the first after a scrum broke out in front of CBJ goalie Sergei Bobrovsky following a frozen puck. 

It was a situation where tempers flared, and Werenski didn't hesitate to do what he felt like he had to do. 

"Kind of right away," Werenski said when asked when he knew he'd have to drop the gloves. "I've never been in that situation before. It all happened so quick, but I'm glad it's over with." 

The third-year defenseman was given kudos as he got back to the Blue Jackets' bench, and the whole thing left head coach John Tortorella beaming in his postgame press conference. 

"Damn right," said the head coach, who two years prior was left admiring Werenski's fortitude after he blocked a shot with his face in a playoff game vs. Pittsburgh then returned to the ice, black eye and all. 

"Was terrific. It's just so good for our bench, and he takes off a pretty good player with him. I think that's so good for him, and it's so good for the camaraderie of our team. That was really good." 

It was a moment that said the Blue Jackets didn't go to Tampa to be pushovers, despite the pre-playoff narrative around the series, and it was a continuation of some of the best hockey of Werenski's life. 

The goal -- a confident snipe into the top corner on the power play, right off the draw, in the first period that made it 2-0 -- and the assist on Matt Duchene's third goal of the game weren't nearly as much of a surprise as the fight given Werenski's offensive pedigree.

He was a first-round draft pick of the Blue Jackets because he has elite offensive abilities from the blue line, and his first two seasons with the Jackets were impressive with a combined 27 goals and 84 points. This year, he posted an 11-33-44 line to place in the top 25 of all NHL defensemen in both goals and points. 

Video: CBJ@TBL, Gm2: Werenski scores off draw on power play

But this year, Werenski was challenged early on to take his defensive game to a new level, and it took a while for that whole picture to come together. Twenty games into the season, he appeared to be as lost as he's ever looked on an NHL ice rink, but by the final 20 games of the season, he was a different player.  

Paired again with fellow two-way standout Seth Jones, Werenski had two goals and 14 points over the last 23 games while playing more than 24 minutes per night. Most importantly, he was a man in the defensive zone, going up against opposing teams' top forwards and making physical plays to compliment his puck-moving style.  

"I want him to be a rover -- I think that's a very important way of playing in today's game is having a guy who can do that -- but there's also understanding situations in games and when you are playing defense that you have to be competitive," Tortorella said late in the season.  

"I think it's been a process for him to understand, can he do both (offense and defense)? Can I concentrate on doing this but also be able to do that? It's taken him some time, but I think he feels very comfortable in his skin right now in being a complete player that way, not taking his offense away from him but also being competitive defensively." 

Just don't expect him to fight again any time soon. Still, you can call him Gordie the next time you see him. 

"We're very proud of the way he's handled himself and the way he's played," general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. "Zach has always been known for his great shot like last night, assists and stuff like that, but the battle level that he showed and how he's played defensively is really great to see." 

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