It’s a game I’ve been waiting for for a really long time. I got to watch a few games and see what it’s like in the ‘Dome. I’m just so excited for my first game. - Sam Bennett
CALGARY, AB -- The look on Sam Bennett’s face at the morning skate suggested it all.
Grinning ear-to-ear for much of the hour-long skate prior to Thursday’s game against the Vancouver Canucks, it became clear -- the top pick (No. 4) of the Calgary Flames from the 2014 NHL Draft is ready to make his preseason debut.
“I’m really excited,” Bennett said. “It’s a game I’ve been waiting for for a really long time. I got to watch a few games and see what it’s like in the ‘Dome. I’m just so excited for my first game.
“When I found out I was playing, I think it was early yesterday morning and the first thing I did was text my parents and all my friends ‘I’m playing [Thursday] so you guys better watch’. It’s definitely exciting for me and my family, for sure.”
Bennett’s debut was delayed by a nagging groin injury sustained at the Young Stars Classic in Penticton.
Originally hauled out of Calgary’s 6-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks for precautionary reasons in the second intermission, Bennett’s groin forced the top prospect to miss the start of Flames training camp.
After declaring himself “100 percent” on Monday, Bennett is good to go.
“With his injury, he kind of missed time and we couldn’t give him earlier games, so there’s not much we could do about this,” coach Bob Hartley said. “Right now, we’re just going to try to fast-forward his progression, fast-forward his ice time.”
Hartley is eager to see how Bennett performs in his first preseason action.
“It’s his first game, so I just want to see what he brings at the NHL level,” he said. “We’re going to be playing a pretty good team, back-to-back. He’s going to be put in a big role. He’s going to get some big ice time. That’s the only way that we can evaluate him.”
He’s not the only one.
The 18-year-old is excited to see how he stacks up, too.
“It was a good test, a good warm-up in Penticton,” Bennett said. “The pace is fast. You didn’t have much time and I expect it to be even faster in even less time tonight. I’m definitely prepared for the game and really excited.
“I’m sure I’m going to be pretty nervous come game time but as soon as I step on the ice, all the nerves disappear and it’s just another hockey game.”
CRUNCH TIME CUTTING
With three preseason games already in the books and three more over the next 96 hours, Hartley cautioned that the evaluation process is getting intense.
But that process isn’t limited to just game action, either.
“We’re starting to be in crunch time right now, where we’ll have big decisions,” the Calgary coach said. “We’re not going to keep two-and-a-half groups forever. In the next couple of days, we’re going to divide the group and there’s still going to be battles going on. I can tell you we’re rating players on a day-to-day basis, not even games. We’re evaluating practices and everything.
“We’re going to have some tough decisions.”
The Flames are currently carrying 58 bodies in camp including five goaltenders, 20 defencemen and 33 forwards.
Some of those injured bodies are nearing return, too. While Calgary lost Morgan Klimchuk in Wednesday’s 4-3 overtime win over the Arizona Coyotes at the 2014 Kraft Hockeyville contest in Sylvan Lake, both Karri Ramo and Mason Raymond are improving.
In Ramo’s case, the goaltender could return as early as Friday against the Canucks.
“There’s possibilities if everything goes well that we could see him in Vancouver tomorrow,” Hartley said.
Thursday’s game against the Vancouver Canucks will be on SN360 (TV) and SN960 (radio) starting at 7 p.m. MST.