Beau Bennett might finally have found a spot in the Penguins top six. Playing in the spot alongside Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz that was recently vacated by the retirement of Pascal Dupuis, Bennett cashed in with a pair of third period goals that helped the Pens turn a one-goal deficit into a 4-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche in Denver on Thursday night.
For Bennett, the beleaguered former first-round pick, it was a relief to finally be rewarded for his hard work, and even more special to do so in the same town where he played college hockey.
“(It’s good being back and being around my alma mater and seeing some friends this weekend, but more importantly it’s good to get back on the right track and get the win with the boys,” Bennett said after the game. “I thought we played pretty well all night long. Luckily we were rewarded in the end.”
With five goals and five assists on the season, Bennett is only four points shy of his career high and 56 games left to play, it looks like a safe bet that Bennett is in the midst of a career year. The catch, as it always has been with the 24-year old winger, will be staying healthy. Even during his first career two-goal game, he suffered a third-period injury scare. Bennett collided awkwardly with Colorado defenseman Erik Johnson in the neutral-zone, and Bennett went to the ice in pain. He did not return to the game — there was only a little over 3 minute remaining — but did not leave the bench area.
For now, Bennett looks to have wrested hold of the coveted spot to the right of Crosby.
“When he’s competing, his skills will start to take over,” Penguins head coach Mike Johnston said. “I thought that line was really good tonight.”
CRASHING THE NET
The Pens made it clear early-on that they wanted to get in the face of Avalanche goaltender Reto Berra. By the middle of the second period, Berra had had enough, taking an interference penalty by laying out Pens rookie Sergei Plotnikov. The Penguins didn’t stop there, though, and in between Bennett’s third-period goals, Patric Hornqivst crashed the net and deflected an Olli Maata shot over the shoulder of Berra and into the net past a pile of scrambling Avalanche defenders.
“I think it was such a scramble, I had no idea what was going on in there, but I was hoping for the best,” said Maatta, who was initially credited with the goal. “I think our forwards just did a good job just clearing out some space and driving to the net, so I had a lot of room to work with.”
PK COMES UP BIG
The other place the Penguins will need to replace Dupuis is on the penalty kill. Dupuis was averaging 2:29 of shorthanded ice time per game at the time of his retirement.
Taking up most of that time was Kunitz. He averaged just 35 seconds of PK time per game coming in, but was tasked with 2:23 of penalty kill time, including a huge 5-on-3 in the early part of the third period; just before the Penguins tied the game.
“You’ve got a monstrous penalty kill right there,” said Johnston. “I thought that was the turning point in the game. They guys were sort of upset about the call. I didn’t see how close it was or it wasn’t. But still, they went out, they killed the penalty, and they responded right after with the big goal by Beau.”
The Penguins penalty kill went 5 for 5 on the night and is now 83.9 percent on the season, up to eighth in the league.
HOME SWEET HOME
With the win, the Penguins salvaged a 2-2 record in their four-game western road trip with wins in Colorado and San Jose bookending losses in Los Angeles and Anaheim. The Pens will now return home for two games, hosting the same Los Angeles Kings on Friday and the Washington Capitals on Monday. The Penguins are 8-4-1 on Consol Energy Center ice this season.
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