Rookie forward Sam Bennett makes early mark for Flames in series with Canucks

VANCOUVER — Earlier this season while rehabbing his surgically repaired shoulder, Sam Bennett wouldn’t leave Calgary Flames head coach Bob Hartley alone.

“Probably the biggest pain I have coached,” Hartley said with a smile Thursday. “Like every day he was coming to me wanting to be in practice, wanting to be in pre-game warmups, and stuff like this.”

The fourth overall pick at last June’s draft, Bennett went to training camp with the Flames in the fall and stayed in Calgary after having a procedure done on his injured shoulder.

He eventually returned to the Ontario Hockey League’s Kingston Frontenacs, but when their season ended earlier this month he was eligible to rejoin the Flames. The 18-year-old suited up against the Winnipeg Jets last Saturday in his first professional game before making his NHL playoff debut in dramatic fashion on Wednesday night.

Bennett was the Flames’ best forward for long stretches as Calgary battled back from a goal down in the third period on the road to beat the Vancouver Canucks 2-1 and grab a 1-0 series lead in their Western Conference quarter-final.

“Fearless is part of his personality,” said Hartley. “When you are talking about a fearless kid, a kid who wants to learn, a kid that wants to compete, thank God we got him in the lineup.”

Calgary didn’t confirm Bennett would dress in Game 1 against Vancouver until after the warmups, but he played nearly 15 minutes while setting up Kris Russell’s winner with 29.6 seconds left in regulation.

“I have a lot of confidence in myself and I wasn’t afraid to make mistakes in the offensive zone,” said Bennett, who turns 19 in June. “I’m a guy that is going to take the puck to the net and I am not going to shy away from anyone. I definitely didn’t try to change anything in my game and I just did my thing.”

Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins said Bennett’s performance will give him something to consider ahead of Game 2 on Friday night at Rogers Arena prior to the series shifting to Calgary.

“He was pretty good,” said Desjardins. “We knew they were a deep team and they had a lot of different weapons. They showed it in that game.”

Bennett was criticized at the NHL combine before the draft for failing to do a single pull-up in fitness testing, but Hartley said there was legitimate reason.

“There were many reports the kid was not a good worker and couldn’t do pull-ups,” he said. “When your shoulder is broken in pieces, but you won’t tell anyone because you are a competitor and you want to be there, I think that speaks volumes about his character.”

Meanwhile, Bennett said being around the Flames earlier in the season as he recovered from surgery has made him more comfortable in the group.

“It’s like I’ve been playing the whole year even though I haven’t,” said the native of Holland Landing, Ont. “That definitely was big for my game.”

With the Flames back in the playoffs for the first time since 2009, Hartley said having youngsters like Bennett coming through the ranks bodes well for the franchise both now and the future.

“That’s the kind of player we need in this organization if we are going to make great strides forward,” he said. “Yes you need talent, you need speed, but you need character and this kid is full of dynamite.”

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

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