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Bennett pushing for postseason spot with Penguins

by Chris Adamski

PITTSBURGH -- NHL coaches traditionally have been quite loathe to playing rookies during the pressure-packed, high-stakes Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has seen enough out of Beau Bennett to say that won't necessarily be the case when it comes to giving the 21-year-old a featured role when the postseason begins in two weeks.

"Beau's played a lot of games for us, he's playing in different types of games, he's played in big games, he's played on the second line and the fourth line in those games," Bylsma said after the morning skate in advance of a game against the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday night. "And I'm comfortable with him and the rookies we have stepping in and being able to contribute in whatever situation may arise down the road."

Bylsma was referring to Bennett, a 2010 first-round pick of the club, and defenseman Simon Despres, whom the Penguins took with their first selection the prior year.

Bennett began the regular season in the American Hockey League but has been a mainstay in the Pittsburgh lineup since his recall in advance of a Feb. 15 game at the Winnipeg Jets. He's missed six games since -- five in the week leading up to the NHL Trade Deadline because the Penguins needed to clear roster space for the four players they acquired over a 10-day span.


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Bennett was assigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton during that stretch but returned when NHL rosters were expanded. Bennett not only regained a spot in the lineup, he's been productive on what has been Pittsburgh's second line with Pascal Dupuis and Brenden Morrow.

"He's definitely fitting in right now," said Dupuis, who is Pittsburgh's top-line right wing when all players are healthy. "He's a great hockey player, a good kid and he's doing his part making his fair share of plays out there. He's making plays with the puck, and he's playing physical right now, which is great. And his confidence is a big plus on our team, that's for sure."

A 6-foot-2, 207-pound player known for his playmaking skills, Bennett has three goals and nine assists in 22 games this season. But all of his offensive production in the most recent 18 contests, including three points (one goal, two assists) in three games since he rejoined the Penguins.

True, Pittsburgh's forward lineup is missing Sidney Crosby, James Neal and Evgeni Malkin because of injury, and that's creating opportunities for more ice time.

But the Penguins also added prominent forwards Morrow, Jarome Iginla and Jussi Jokinen to their lineup over the past three weeks. In Bennett's first season as a professional, he is playing like someone who wants to keep his spot in an NHL lineup on a nightly basis -- even for a team as loaded up front as Pittsburgh is.

"It's still the same game, so even those guys, they make it kind of easier just be being so good with the puck and being in the right spot," Bennett said. "It is humbling, and I am very fortunate to be where I am and I never want to get complacent or be satisfied with where I'm at. I want to keep getting better and improve every day."

Players who were taken higher in the draft than Bennett and who quickly established themselves as valuable NHL players, Jason Spezza and Tyler Seguin, were healthy scratches during their first postseasons when coaches didn't feel comfortable with inexperienced play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Bylsma denies that will be the case with Bennett, although it should be noted that if the Penguins are completely healthy, there is a glut of forwards from which to choose. Bylsma cited Bennett's performance in some of the regular-season's highest-profile moments as proof he is ready for the big time.

"At a certain point in time, you're in hockey games where you're looking at that type of performance before the playoffs come, whether it be a big rivalry game or a big game in New York or whatever the situation," Bylsma said. "If you're talking about scooping a rookie out of the sky and dropping him in for his first pro game, that's something different."

For proof of how a rookie can impact a team that makes a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Bennett can look no further than to his left while on the ice. Morrow became an NHL regular in 1999-2000 at age 20 and played a significant role in the Dallas Stars' run to the 2000 Stanley Cup Final that spring.

"It was a lot easier for me," the characteristically self-deprecating Morrow said. "I just was a dog after a bone chasing people around, trying to finish checks -- he's actually got some poise and some skill.

"He's making good plays with the puck. I wasn't around for the beginning of the year but he seems really comfortable out there right now."

Penguins defenseman Kris Letang played 16 postseason games as a 21-year-old rookie when Pittsburgh advanced to the Stanley Cup Final, including the first two games of the Final series the Penguins ultimately lost to the Detroit Red Wings in six games.

They play different positions so it's a difficult comparison, but Letang suggested Bennett is more equipped to handle the rigors of postseason hockey than he was five years ago.

"Beau's more mature than people think on the ice," Letang said. "He never takes stupid chances or anything like that. He's really careful with the puck -- when he sees he's got nothing, he's not going to try to [force] stuff, he's just going to make the simple play. But when he's got a chance to prove he can do what he can with his talent, he does really well, actually. He's been playing really well for us."

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