CALGARY — Like any rookie, Sam Bennett’s first NHL season has been a series of firsts: first scoring slump, first hat trick, first four-goal game and now the first time facing the team he once idolized.
The 19-year-old from Holland Landing, Ont., and the Calgary Flames host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday at Scotiabank Saddledome.
Bennett estimates he attended a game at the Air Canada Centre at least once a year from the age of 10. He says his emotional attachment to the Leafs went out the window once he became a Flame, but that’s not the case for his father Dave, with whom he lives in Calgary.
“My dad is definitely really excited for this game,” an amused Bennett said Monday. “I hope he’s cheering for us, but we’ll see.”
Bennett was tied for fourth among NHL rookies Monday with 14 goals, alongside Arizona’s Anthony Duclair and Buffalo’s Sam Reinhart.
Chicago’s Artemi Panarin and Detroit’s Dylan Larkin led all freshman goalscorers with 18 apiece ahead of Reinhart’s teammate Jack Eichel with 16.
Bennett has scored nine of his 14 in the last month on the heels of an 18-game drought. He worked feverishly hard around the net during a dry spell stretching from Nov. 27 to Jan. 7, but had zero luck.
Flames head coach Bob Hartley was asked by reporters Dec. 30 about the possibility of moving Bennett from left wing back to his natural position of centre, and also whether Bennett deserved more ice time given how hard he was working.
But Hartley stayed the course with Bennett, who broke the tension Jan. 11 with a goal against the San Jose Sharks. That was followed by a four-goal explosion, including a first-period hat trick, the next game against the Florida Panthers.
“In junior, you don’t normally go a couple of games without scoring,” Bennett said. “It was definitely different, but it’s a different league and it’s a lot tougher. I knew that coming in.
“I was still getting a lot of chances, so you only start to worry when you’re not getting the chances. I knew eventually it would start to come.”
With 24 points, the six-foot-one, 186-pound forward ranks seventh among NHL rookies.
Calgary’s highest draft pick ever at fourth overall in 2014, Bennett has a top-six role playing with centre Mikael Backlund and right-winger Michael Frolik on the second line.
“Of course, I still consider myself a centreman, but I think I’ve played left wing pretty much this whole year, so now I’m just as comfortable there,” Bennett said.
No one can accuse Hartley of overworking Bennett at an average of just over 15 minutes per game, but Hartley has followed a template established when first-line centre Sean Monahan joined the Flames as an 18-year-old.
“We’re treating him the same way we treated Sean Monahan in his first year and we have kind of our own recipe,” Hartley said back in December.
“We’re trying to teach them the right way to play and be a good pro at the NHL level. I think Sammy is doing very good, but let’s not get too far ahead. Obviously we like the way he plays.”
There were indications Monday that Hartley didn’t like the way his team was practising. Half an hour into their skate, Hartley summoned the players into the corner for a meeting and then left the ice abruptly to end practice.
The coach downplayed the abbreviated session afterward, although forward David Jones admitted “we weren’t as crisp as we needed to be.”
The Flames (23-25-3) are at a critical juncture in their season eight points out of a division playoff berth and nine away from a wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
Coming off a 4-1 win over the host Vancouver Canucks on Saturday, the Flames need more of the same divisional success on the road against San Jose on Thursday and Arizona on Friday to gain ground.
“With 50 games played, it’s time to step it up,” Hartley said. “We have no choice. We have to put on some major winning streaks.”
Jones Hiller gets his second straight start for the Flames on Tuesday after his 35-save performance against the Canucks.
Suspended defenceman Dennis Wideman will have a hearing with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Wednesday in New York. The Players’ Association has appealed his 20-game suspension for cross-checking a lines