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NHL dream finally arrives for Senators' Benoit

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
After toiling for nearly 400 games in the minors and Europe, Andre Benoit finally will make his National Hockey League debut on Friday night when the Senators face the Boston Bruins at Scotiabank Place (Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photography/OSHC).

Matt Carkner cast a knowing glance as he witnessed the crowd gathered around a beaming teammate on the opposite side of  the Ottawa Senators dressing room.

"I know that feeling," Carkner said as he watched his newest defence partner, Andre Benoit, talk about getting a long-awaited chance to suit up for a National Hockey League game. "It's great for him to be up here and get an opportunity. That's the biggest thing, to get an opportunity.

"Hopefully, tomorrow night will be a good night for him."

It's a moment that has been a long time in coming, indeed, for the 27-year-old Benoit, a native of nearby St. Albert, Ont. Undrafted after five years of junior hockey with the Kitchener Rangers, the 5-11 blueliner bounced between the American Hockey League's Hamilton Bulldogs and two stints in Europe before signing with the Binghamton Senators last summer.

Now, after toiling for 265 games in the AHL and another 108 across the pond, Benoit's dream will come true Friday night, when he lines up for the Senators against the Boston Bruins at Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., TSN, Team 1200).

"I've been waiting a long time for this," the shaven-skulled Benoit told reporters after his first full practice with the big club earlier today. "Now it's here and I've got to take advantage of it. I'm excited and we'll be ready to go tomorrow."

Benoit's promotion is just reward for his efforts in Binghamton, where he's having a career pro season with six goals and 37 points in 53 games — tops among all blueliners for the B-Sens. With veterans Sergei Gonchar and Chris Campoli (both lower body) likely out tomorrow night and Saturday in Toronto against the Maple Leafs (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200), the door opened for Benoit.

"He's been (Binghamton's) best defenceman and the most consistent," Senators head coach Cory Clouston said in explaining the move. "He's done a real good job on their power play and 5-on-5, he's been very solid as well. It was an easy decision for us to make."

Clouston also got rave reviews from a couple of his former junior players who worked alongside Benoit last season with the Hamilton Bulldogs, for whom he spent three of the last five years (Benoit played one season each in Finland and Sweden between his two stints with the Montreal Canadiens' top farm team).

"The two guys I spoke with really enjoyed playing with (Benoit)," said Clouston. "All indications are he's been our best defenceman (in Binghamton) and he's going to get the chance now."

Ask Benoit why it's taken so long for that chance to arrive and there's no easy answer.

"I didn't get drafted and from there, it's a battle to prove yourself," he said. "To get the chance, you’ve got to get an opportunity (from someone) and make the most it. I don’t know why, but it just took longer for me.

"It’s just been about trying to get ready for that one chance and that’s what I did the last five years. At times (it was frustrating), but at the same time, you’re playing hockey for a living, so you can’t get discouraged about that."

Nobody appreciates that story more than Carkner, another local product from Winchester, Ont., who endured eight years of minor pro hockey before finally catching on for good with the Senators last season. Before then, he saw just two games of NHL duty.

"It's great for him," Carkner said of Benoit. "He's excited and he deserves a shot. I'm sure there's a million things going through his head for tomorrow but all he has to do is go out and play ... This has been has dream his whole career and there's going to be emotions and some nerves there.

"I remember when I got my first shot to play with San Jose (in the 2005-06 season), I felt like I was just a little kid with a bunch of men. But it's a great feeling and well deserved."

Carkner, meanwhile, has missed six games in the last four weeks with a nagging lower-body ailment. But after going through a full practice today, he's confident about rejoining the lineup against the Bruins.

"Today was a good skate," he said. "The conditioning wasn't there right away but as the practice went along, I felt pretty good. I'm hoping to get in the lineup.

"From what I felt today, there wasn't the same kind of pain and all that. So today, I think we're headed in the right direction."

Around the boards

Being that he's from the area, Benoit figures to have quite the rooting section for his big moment on Friday night. "My parents, my wife and daughter, aunts, uncles ... the whole crew is going to be there," said Benoit, who will wear No. 47 ... Also summoned from the B-Sens today was forward Colin Greening, who made his own NHL debut back in a 2-1 road loss to the New Jersey Devils back on Feb. 1. "Colin is a big, physical winger and has played well down there," said Clouston. "He's been very consistent and developed and improved as the season has gone on" ... Clouston isn't giving up on the possibility of goaltender Pascal Leclaire (lower body), who hasn't played since Dec. 16, returning to action before the season is done. "He was much better today," said Clouston. "He took some shots before practice and he was on the ice for about half an hour. Possibly, he might be able to practise next week."

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