In today's Baptist Health Practice Notebook, Sam Bennett is back in action and ready to take on Tampa Bay, Gustav Forsling is finding his game in Florida, and a look at Friday's practice lines.
SUNRISE, Fla. - If we're just going off grizzled facial hair, Sam Bennett could easily pass for a player that's already fought his way more than a few rounds deep into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In reality, he's just getting a good head start.
Preparing to embark on his first postseason run with the Panthers, the rugged forward was a full participant during Friday morning's practice, slotting right back in his usual spot in the middle of the second line after having sat out two of the final three games of the regular season with an injury.
"I feel great," Bennett said out from under a thick mustache. "I'm ready to go and just excited."
One of the main X-factors for the Panthers heading into Game 1 of their first-ever playoff series against the cross-state rival Lightning on Sunday at BB&T Center, Bennett's quick return to the ice with a few days still to spare certainly comes as a welcome sight for both fans and the team.
Coming over from Calgary at last month's trade deadline, the 24-year-old has been on a tear ever since he arrived in South Florida. Taking on a greater role with the Panthers than he had with the Flames, who made him the fourth-overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, he's flourished under head coach Joel Quenneville while receiving both increased responsibility and ice time.
With Jonathan Huberdeau on his left and either Anthony Duclair or Owen Tippett on his right, Bennett has produced 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in 10 games with the Panthers after putting up just 12 points (four goals, eight assists) during his final 38 games with the Flames.
In that same 10-game span, he's registered a team-leading 65.20 CF% at 5-on-5 while fitting in perfectly with Florida's possession-based system. In that stretch, the team has also owned big advantages in both scoring chances (78-34) and goals scored (10-1) when he's been deployed.
Averaging 18:04 of ice time per game, Bennett also plays a role on both special teams units.
"He's been an excellent fit for us," Quenneville said with emphasis. "Right from the get-go, he's in the middle, taking faceoffs, killing penalties, and now he's a power-play guy. That line has been outstanding as far as what they've been generating. Their production is high-end.
"He has the puck a lot, gives us some physicality. He's everything you want in a centerman. He's quickly adapted to the system, which was seamlessly part of his game. You couldn't say enough good things about how he's fit in. It's been a great start to his time in South Florida."
When asked how he was able to adapt to a new system so quickly, Bennett said all he had to do was keep his eyes open. As the team's second-line pivot, he would usually hop over the boards immediately after a shift from Aleksander Barkov, the team's star center and captain.
As he waited for his turn, Bennett said he'd take note of how Barkov was moving around the ice and the reads he was making all over the rink. While doing this, he managed to pick up on "a lot of impressive things" from the potential Selke Trophy finalist, especially in the defensive zone.
"He's a centerman, probably one of the best in the league, if not the best," Bennett said of Barkov, who led the Panthers with 26 goals this season. "I was just watching him and learning little things from him. Obviously, that's what I think made the transition so easy for me."
While he's already gotten off to an incredible start, Bennett's best games might still be to come. A proven performer in the postseason, so much so that the term "Playoff Sam Bennett" is known far and wide throughout the hockey world, he always seems to be at his best on the big stage.
Suiting up in 30 career playoff games with the Flames, he tallied 19 points, including 11 goals.
"Playoff hockey is my favorite time of year," Bennett said. "It's faster, more intense. Every play is magnified, and that's how hockey should be played. I can't wait to get going [on Sunday]."
FORSLING FINDING HIS GAME
Gustav Forsling couldn't help but crack a tiny grin when asked about his attire.
Looking like a poster boy for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the soft-spoken Swede arrived at the podium after practice decked out head to toe in new playoff-branded gear. He had a playoff hat, a playoff sweatshirt, and even though you couldn't see them on camera, probably playoff shorts.
Oh, I also failed to mention that he was also sitting in front of a new playoff media backdrop.
"Two days away now," Forsling said of the matchup with Tampa Bay. "It's going to be real fun."
Like Bennett, Forsling is another player that seemingly came out of nowhere to become a key part of Florida's success. Claimed off waivers from the Hurricanes during training camp, the 24-year-old defenseman will now head into the postseason as half of the team's top defensive pair.
Stepping up to fill the void alongside MacKenzie Weegar after No. 1 defenseman Aaron Ekblad was lost for the season after suffering a lower-body injury on March 28, Forsling has recorded 12 of his 17 points this season in the 21 games he's played since being thrust into his new role.
Finding instant chemistry with Weegar, Forsling's possession numbers have also spiked despite now facing down the opposing team's top players each game. During that 21-game span, he put up a 56.19 CF% while the Panthers also led 22-8 in goals when he was out on the ice at 5-on-5.
"I've seen him a lot, but when you play with him that's how you know how good he is," Forsling said of Weegar, who paced Florida's defensemen in assists (30) and points (36) this season.
Despite his obvious offensive upside, Forsling's value as of late has really shined through on the defensive side of the puck. A gifted skater, you'll often catch him charging full speed at opposing puck carriers as they cross the blue line, stifling would-be attacks before they even get started.
"That's what we want to try to do," Forsling said of his approach on defense. "As D-men, we want to try and have a close gap. We want to even try to close [the gap] before the blue line."
From the waiver wire to suddenly being tasked with containing top players like Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point when the Panthers kick off their series with the Lightning on Sunday, Forsling, who will be making his NHL playoff debut, still believes he's the same player.
"I don't think I've changed a lot," Forsling said. "I just keep playing my game."
FRIDAY'S PRACTICE LINES
Carter Verhaeghe - Aleksander Barkov - Anthony Duclair
Jonathan Huberdeau - Sam Bennett - Owen Tippett
Frank Vatrano - Alex Wennberg - Patric Hornqvist
Ryan Lomberg - Noel Acciari - Mason Marchment
Nikita Gusev - Juho Lammikko - Aleksi Heponiemi
Gustav Forsling - MacKenzie Weegar
Keith Yandle - Radko Gudas
Markus Nutivaara - Brandon Montour
Kevin Connauton - Anton Stralman