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Centre makes a statement with play in win over Coyotes

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

So far, the thatch of facial foliage, that Deep Woods Off, Alberta lumberjack look, seems to suit Sam Bennett.

Monday, he took a few decisive swings of his custom-made composite axe, then stood back and yelled "Timmmmmmber!" as the Arizona Coyotes were toppled in pre-season.

Be sure that this bearded Bennett will be cutting down more, bigger trees in the months to come.

"Did it look fun? It was fun,'' he conceded of a three-helper night. "I thought we played pretty solid hockey and our line was getting a lot of looks.

"I think (my confidence) pretty high. I mean, I've said this before, you can't really look too much into pre-season 'cause it's a little bit different hockey.

"But it's good to get some good touches, get your feet under you.

"It's huge. This game is a mental battle and confidence is a huge part of it. Wherever you can get it, however you can get it, you want to use it to your advantage.

"And just roll with it."

Video: Bennett says Friday night's game was a lot of fun

Taking a spin as fulcrum of the No.-1 line in place of the convalescing Sean Monahan, Bennett ignited the most competitive, convincing performance of the pre-season by the Flames.

"Pre-season or not,'' said Bennett, "we're all competitors in here and we all hate losing. So it's definitely nice to get a win and we're going to use this momentum and keep rolling."

Yes, Micheal Ferland performed with power and purpose and Johnny Gaudreau had his jet-skis strapped on tight and spent the night whizzing around people-pylons as only he can. T.J. Brodie was wonderfully composed on the back end, candidate for Prime Time Mark Jankowski sniped his third goal in as many auditions and goaltender Mike Smith beat his old team, 4-2.

But Bennett, be sure, was the man powering the engine.

"They're great players,'' he lauded of his Friday comrades-in-arms. "Johnny makes guys around him better. He's always open so you've got to keep your head up and look for him. With Ferly's presence out there it really helps bring the line together."

The job of No.-1 pivot is already taken, in exceedingly good hands, of course. So Bennett merely smiled when playfully asked if he'd be bargaining with coach Glen Gulutzan for his share of Johnny-Ferly time.

"I'm just going to play my best,'' he said. "Gully will make the line decisions."

Gulutzan was suitably impressed with Bennett's play on the night.

"That's the step for him,'' said Gulutzan. "We know that Johnny and Ferly are good players and that line (with Monahan) is a good line in the National Hockey League.

"But you plunk in Benny and one of the telltale signs of good players is when they play well with other good players. They fit right in.

"I have no question that he'll be a driver on his line."

A two-year, $3.9-million deal putting him at contractual peace, Bennett can now concentrate on becoming the impact centreman everyone 'round these parts has been forecasting.

A short diagonal powerplay pass on Gaudreau's one-timer opening goal got Bennett and the line off on the right foot. A second assist on Ferland's high slot deflection. Then an off-the-boards bank pass sent Gaudreau off to the races for his second of the evening.

Bennett had also sprung the Gaudreau with an earlier breakaway pass, detonated the mask off 'Yotes' goaltender Louis Domingue via a rising powerplay wrist shot, tied No. 13 with a game-high six shots on net and won 17 of 25 draws.

An impressive evening's toil.

"He's a skilled player,'' praised Gaudreau. "For me, personally, it's not hard to find things and get things going. Sometimes it can be but when he plays like that, it's easy to make plays and find the net.

"He did a great job tonight." 

During his morning-skate availablity, Gulutzan had been waxing lyrical about the centre.

"Sammy went through the process, played a lot of centre, had a great playoff, was our best player in Edmonton,'' he'd informed the media at 11:30 a.m.

"We have a player who's at a different age of maturing, who's had a great summer with his training.

"This is the guy - I've said it before - that I think we'll see the biggest jump in growth out of."

Hours later, Gulutzan looked a psychic for the timing of his earlier remarks.

"It's just the natural progression of a player. I think we all want things quickly in this league but usually … if I just go back to my experience with young guys in this league and the skill set that he has, it doesn't always come when you want it but he put in a hard year last year, learned a lot of things and I think he's poised to have a great year.

"I think he's more relaxed. He knows what's expected of him. He knows he can do it. He's more confident. And that's what happens with growth, with experience."


That's a word more and more often being uttered in connection with Sam Bennett.

And not only in terms of facial foliage, either.

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