Beau Bennett, right, could make his NHL debut tonight after being called up from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Thursday.
By Shelly Anderson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Beau Bennett left the University of Denver last spring after his sophomore year and a hockey season that was reduced to 10 games because of wrist surgery.
As he nears his NHL debut with the Penguins -- it could be tonight in Winnipeg or perhaps Sunday in Buffalo after he was called up Thursday from the American Hockey League -- it's clear where the forward's game has improved in his first pro season.
"The eye-openers [in the AHL] were just strength and speed down low," Bennett said Thursday after practicing with the Penguins at Southpointe. "There's not a lot of space out there to make pretty plays, pretty passes. I definitely had to simplify."
That jibes with coach Dan Bylsma's assessment of Bennett's play with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton this season.
Bennett, 21 and a first-round draft pick in 2010, brings more than fancy stickhandling.
"He's shown he's not just a skill guy who has to play on the perimeter," Bylsma said. "He wins puck battles. He can hang onto the puck down low. He goes up against grown men in down-low situations and is able to win pucks.
"That's probably been the most impressive thing about Beau in the American Hockey League to this point. Yes, we've seen him make a play. We've seen him score a couple of great goals. But he's been able to win puck battles, go down low, out-battle guys and do that at the pro level."
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Coming off of 4-2 win against Ottawa after scoring one goal in each of their previous two games. ... James Neal led NHL with 6 power-play goals before games Thursday . ... Pascal Dupuis has 7 points (4 goals, 3 assists) over past 9 games.
Beat Penguins, 4-2, Jan. 25. ... Have lost two home games in row. ... Penalty kill is last in NHL at 67.5 percent.
The Penguins have scored first in each of their road games, going 6-2.
How things play out for Bennett in the coming days are as much a mystery as the past few.
He was summoned to Pittsburgh earlier in the week so Penguins doctors could evaluate an undisclosed injury that sidelined him about a week, although he had already gotten back into the Wilkes-Barre lineup for three games.
After Bennett watched the Penguins' 4-2 win Wednesday night against Ottawa, the team surprised him Thursday morning with the news that he was being promoted to the NHL roster. He didn't have time to call his family and friends.
"I haven't even told anybody yet," Bennett said. "If they see it on the ticker bar or whatever, they will know as much as I do. It's been such a whirlwind."
Bylsma said Bennett was told around 9:30 a.m. that he would be part of an 11:15 practice, then head for the team's flight to Winnipeg for the game tonight.
Bylsma, however, kept the wraps on plans for tonight.
Conjecture has been that when Bennett was ready for the NHL, he would get a shot at playing left winger on a line with center Evgeni Malkin and right winger James Neal.
But in the game Wednesday, Matt Cooke was promoted to Malkin's line. He earned an assist -- the first left winger on that line to get a point this season -- and rave reviews.
"Matt probably played his two best periods of hockey of the year," Bylsma said.
At practice Thursday, Malkin and center Brandon Sutter were excused for "maintenance days," so the forward-line combinations were skewed and Bennett didn't get to re-acquaint himself with Malkin's high-level skills.
Cooke remained on a line with Neal, with Dustin Jeffrey filling in for Malkin. Bennett filled in on Sutter's third line with Zach Boychuk and Tyler Kennedy.
"I haven't been really told anything," Bennett said of his role.
He was one of a handful of prospects invited to training camp, which was shortened to a week in January because of the NHL lockout. He spent a little time practicing alongside Malkin.
Bylsma was coy about his plans for Bennett, but indicated the rookie could play on the third or fourth line initially with an eye toward moving up to one of the top two lines.
"Whether Beau plays Friday or Sunday or when Beau plays, he's a skill guy who has the ability to make plays and to finish," Bylsma said. "That's something he's going to get a chance to do. Who it's with at this particular time, he doesn't know.
"But he's definitely going to get on the second power-play unit. He's going to have an opportunity, probably, to play in a top-six [forward] role at some point. But isn't necessarily where he's going to start when he gets in the lineup."
Bennett isn't trying to pick his spots -- "Just enjoying practice and this trip," he said -- and trying to keep up with his own learning curve.
"This year I've learned a lot," he said. "It's been a big transition, coming and playing the [Penguins] system. Playing in the AHL is definitely harder than college. I think I've improved from day one. That's the biggest thing."