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Rookies Tkachuk and Werenski to face off tonight

Matthew Tkachuk and Zach Werenski will face each other for the first time in their NHL careers

by Torie Peterson @ToriePeterson /

COLUMBUS, OH -- Defenceman Zach Werenski is very familiar with Matthew Tkachuk's game.

He has seen the gritty, in-your-face pestiness Tkachuk has become known for up-close over the years, during the pair's time together with USA Hockey at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship and with the U.S. National Team Development Program in 2013-14.

"I'm excited to play him. I know from playing with him that he's a pain in everyone's ... you know," Werenski chuckled. "I'm excited to go out there and play against him. He's a good kid. I like him a lot. We're good friends. It's the first time we're going to battle outside of practices so it should be a fun time to play against him."

According to Werenski, Tkachuk's style of play hasn't changed a bit over the years. He's been driving his opponents around the bend for as long as Werenski can remember.

"He's always played that game since I've known him. It's effective. It gets in guys' heads. It gets under the other team's skin. Hopefully, we don't let it get to us tonight. I know about it so I should have some fun with it."

While Werenski is sure he has a read on the Flames' rookie, Tkachuk's opinion on the matter differs.

"He always said that he figured me out when we played together with the U.S. team but I seem to find a couple of ways to surprise him every once and awhile," Tkachuk slyly noted.

"I'm really excited. I really love playing against a bunch of former teammates and really close friends I still have."

Both rookies are off to a great start to their professional careers. Werenski is third in rookie scoring in the NHL with five goals and 15 points in 17 games and is playing a top-two role for the Blue Jackets at just 19 years of age.

"I just think he has a mental toughness, a mental being about himself that he doesn't get floored by a lot. He doesn't get intimidated by a lot," Columbus head coach John Tortorella said.

"He's so effortless that sometimes you say, 'Is he ready to play?' But that's just the way he is, that's his personality. He takes it in. He's very coachable and just tries to make a difference all the time. If it doesn't work out and he makes a mistake, he's not afraid to come back and try that play - or maybe an even more difficult play - to get us out of our end zone, whatever it may be.

"I think he's very mature for such a young guy playing the toughest position in the game, to be able to handle the minutes we've poured on him so quickly here in his first year of pro."

Tkachuk, 18, is 10th in the league in rookie scoring with five goals and nine points through 17 skates. He has become a staple on the Flames' second line, flanked by veterans Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik, and has been tasked with helping shut down opponents' top lines on a nightly basis.

He hasn't flinched under pressure, either. In fact, he's thrived as head coach Glen Gulutzan has given him more and more responsibilities.

Tkachuk leads the Flames in five-on-five shot attempts percentage (56.22 percent) and hasn't been sheltered when it comes to zone starts - as per, he has been on the ice for 84 defensive zone face-offs and 44 offensive zone draws.

His nine points places him fourth in team scoring and he's coming off a two-point performance against the Buffalo Sabres on Monday.

"He's always in the fabric of the game. He's always around the net. I (think) he's done a great job of managing pucks and getting pucks in deep," Gulutzan said earlier this month when asked about the rookie.

"He's still a young guy but he's done a lot of real good things. He's got a really good small game - in small spaces. He can make plays in tight areas. He's done a good job of that."

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