By @StefanKubus –
DETROIT – For the first time in his life, Zach Werenski traveled to downtown Detroit to play hockey, but it wasn’t at Joe Louis Arena.
The Grosse Pointe Woods native was certainly left impressed in his first visit to Little Caesars Arena, calling it “probably the best building in the NHL.”
“Obviously it’s a little bit different when you come here, you don’t get to go to Joe Louis, especially for me, someone who grew up in that building watching games, playing in games, such an iconic building for young kids around here.
“You notice right away it’s state of the art, it’s phenomenal what they did here, so I think it’s just great for the city… It’s probably the best building in the NHL, so it’s fun to come here and see everything that they’ve done. The city here definitely deserves it.”
Ann Arbor native Jack Johnson, who scored the shootout winner, echoed Werenski’s thoughts on the new building.
“Being a Michigan guy always playing the Red Wings, it’s a special game, being here first time in this building, its an incredible building, and I’m happy for the city of Detroit and the fans here,” Johnson said. “They’ve got a gem of a building.”
The Columbus Blue Jackets entered Saturday night’s game on a four-game losing streak after getting out to a 9-4 start to the campaign.
But in their first visit to the LCA, the University of Michigan alumni trio of Werenski, Johnson and forward Tyler Motte (St. Clair) helped right that ship by getting Columbus back in the win column in Detroit – a 2-1 shootout victory that went nine rounds. The three players also all are alumni of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program.
“We haven’t been playing great hockey, we dropped four in a row, so it’s nice to come out here and get two points and back on the winning track,” Werenski said.
Johnson scored the shootout winner in the ninth round after Columbus head coach John Tortorella received some pressure on the bench to let him go.
“Everybody was telling me, ‘Jack Johnson, Jack Johnson,” Tortorella said. “I said, ‘I’m not using Jack, there’s some other people up.’ Jack just turned around and said, ‘I’m good.’ I said, ‘Are you any good at these things?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’m good.’ And it’s just how Jack is with that deadpan look, so he’s in the top-3 now.”
Johnson said he simply studied the shooters that had already went and planned to mix it up.
“I was actually just watching all the shooters before me,” Johnson said of his shootout attempt. “Every guy was going in to shoot, he was challenging a lot, so I wanted to mix it up, and I knew I was going to deke just because everyone was shooting and he was far out.”
Despite being held off the scoresheet Saturday night, Werenski is off to another strong start to follow up on his impressive rookie season, having posted four goals and ten points through the first 18 games from the blue line. In three career games in Detroit dating back to last year, Werenski is still looking for his first point in Detroit. He came close by hitting a crossbar in overtime.
Tortorella even used Werenski in the shootout.
“He’s asked me most shootouts if I want to go and I say yes and it never ends up working out, but I think just being from Detroit he put me in. I thought I’d be nervous, so on the bench I picked what I was gonna do. When I got out there, I wasn’t nervous at all and I already had it set in my mind, but probably shouldn’t have shot there.”
Both Werenski and lifelong best friend Dylan Larkin each missed in their shootout attempts – and they each made sure the other one knew about it, too. The duo also could be seen battling in OT at one point.
“I was pretty tired and I saw him trying to fly by me, and just got in his way,” Werenski said of Larkin. “Next thing I know, he tries to get in my way and interfere a little bit. After I hit the crossbar, I was coming back to the bench and he was smiling at me. And then I went in the shootout and I missed and I came back and he was laughing, and then he went and missed and I was laughing, so it was pretty funny how we just communicated like that on the ice.”
After being acquired in the Artemi Panarin deal this past summer, Motte is starting to find his own groove in Columbus. After just missing out on making the team out of training camp, Motte took the demotion as motivation. His first seven AHL games saw him post seven points before being recalled. And in six games with the Blue Jackets, Motte has posted three points in a depth forward role.
For Motte, Saturday marked his first career regular-season game in Detroit. He and Werenski played together for two years at Michigan before both turned pro.
“A little bit of everything honestly, blocking shots, playing hard,” Werenski said of what Motte brings to the Blue Jackets. “He’s got great skill, so he kind of brings the whole package.
“It’s been awesome. After games, we’re always checking how Michigan’s doing, just talking about the guys there and stuff like that. Me, him and Jack are always talking about it, so it’s pretty cool.”