A clear, 78-degree afternoon must have felt like home for Southern California native Beau Bennett. Even at dusk, though, the sun was still shining on "Sunshine."
Twenty-five seconds into his first career postseason shift, the 21-year-old Bennett scored his first career postseason goal. Bennett, a surprise addition to the Pittsburgh Penguins' lineup for their playoff opener, wasn't told he'd be playing against the New York Islanders for Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series until Wednesday morning.
His goal opened the floodgates of what turned out to be a 5-0 Pittsburgh victory.
"You definitely get ramped up because the crowd was ready from the get-go," said Bennett, a 2010 first-round draft pick (No. 20) of the Penguins. "I was pretty excited to get that first shift on the power play -- and definitely helped getting that goal as well."
Bennett flipped a wrist shot to the perfect spot of only a couple of inches of near-side space between Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov's shoulder, the cross bar and the post as he skated down through the right circle with speed.
"There wasn't a whole lot of room," veteran teammate Brenden Morrow said, marveling, "and he found a little hole there up top."
It was the kind of skill play that Bennett -- dubbed "Sunshine" by his teammates after a character in the movie "Remember the Titans" -- regularly wows teammates and coaches with in practice.
But as talented as Bennett is, there were doubts he'd be able to crack a deep lineup of a team that is on a very short list of Stanley Cup favorites. While Bennett appeared in 26 games this season, many times a spot was open in the lineup because of injuries to other players.
Entering the playoffs, captain Sidney Crosby was the only injured forward. With the team returning to relative health and the addition of three forwards at the trade deadline last month, coach Dan Bylsma acknowledged he had some tough decisions.
One he made that many did not expect was to scratch veteran Tyler Kennedy, a Bylsma favorite who had been a healthy scratch once during this past regular season. Bennett was to be on the Penguins' fourth line with Craig Adams and Tanner Glass.
"The skill he adds to our lineup on the fourth line was not only evident on that goal, but evident in 5-on-5 as well with some of the shifts he had in the offensive zone," Bylsma said. "That's something he's added in his latest stint with us after he got called back up. He's proven that, and certainly did that tonight."
Bennett's goal came at the tail end of a power play, meaning he was on the ice with world-class talents Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. Bennett fit right in -- good thing, too, because when James Neal left the game early in the second period with an apparent lower-body injury, Bennett found himself on a line with Malkin and Chris Kunitz.
The Penguins gave no update on Neal's status for Game 2 -- but they can feel confident Bennett can slot into any top-six role.
"He's got a lot of skill -- and a lot of smarts," Jarome Iginla said of Bennett. "People talk about hockey IQ and stuff; he's got a lot of it. He finds ways to make plays with the puck, and the puck seems to follow him."
Bylsma said Bennett was probably the team's best power-play guy outside of the first unit over the final 10 games of the regular season. But it isn't just his skill that's stood out.
"He's a guy who's played very well without the puck and in defensive situations and earned our trust in that regard," Bylsma said.
The boyish-looking Bennett plays quite the mature game. Asked if he was going to have trouble growing a playoff beard, Bennett responded with a straight face, "I've been growing that out all year. It's not doing too well, but hopefully it takes a turn for the better here soon."
That's OK. Bennett has the look of a player who will have a long and fruitful NHL career, meaning he will have many more opportunities to hope his chin stubble blossoms as he ages.
The rookie said he tried to keep his pregame and night-before routine the same as he has for any regular-season contest.
"I tried to focus a little more so than I usually do; I'm pretty laid back but I tried to bring it at a different level," Bennett said. "Me and Coach Dan have been talking about my starts and how they haven't been great as of late and it was pretty big to have that first period."