PITTSBURGH, – Wearing the team’s cowboy hat and a grin as he sat waiting for the media, Sam Bennett didn’t exactly look like the wild west’s baddest hombre.
However, for a man who admitted this fall he was still searching for a role, the one he’d just played out at PPG Paints Arena sure seemed to suit him just fine once again.
Responding to a hellacious hit on teammate Austin Czarnik late in the first period by Marcus Pettersson, Bennett immediately engaged the Penguins defenceman in a fight.
It’s the Calgary way, dating back to opening night when Travis Hamonic had his face fractured in a scrap defending the honour of Dillon Dube.
In a league almost devoid of goons, no one has embraced the role of being the policeman in town like Sherriff Benny.
Not only did the fight land Bennett one shy of the league-lead in punch-ups with five, it also led to Czarnik’s second-period goal, putting the Flames up 3-1 in a game they controlled most of the afternoon.
“I didn’t like the hit, I didn’t think Czarnik touched the puck,” said Bennett, correctly, following a gritty 5-4 win he helped spearhead as the team-anointed MVP.
“Any time I see one of my teammates getting hit like that I think there needs to be a response and sometimes it’s necessary.
“I’ve never really considered myself to be doing that but I’m definitely comfortable doing it, so anytime it’s necessary I’m going to jump in there.”
It’s a fascinating niche for the highest draft pick in Flames history, who was selected fourth overall in 2014.
Yet, it has transformed the 6-foot-1, 195-pound winger from a relative bust into one of the most popular players in the room and around town.
His greasiness played a prominent role in a feisty affair that featured spill-over from the 9-1 drubbing the Flames suffered at the hands of the Penguins ten games into the season.
That loss kick-started the Flames transformation from a .500 club to leaders of the Pacific division, which made Saturday’s win yet another interesting turn-about for the Flames season.
Losers of five of six since the prolonged all-star break, the Flames were 0-1-2 on a road trip they capped off with a win on Saturday that quickly transformed it into a .500 journey.
“The last couple games haven’t been where we want to be and we had a good pushback tonight and that’s a huge two points for us,” said Bennett, whose 11th goal capped a four-goal second period that was the eventual game-winner.
“I don’t think it’s a sigh of relief – no one in this locker room is worried at all. We’re still in first place in the West and we’re as confident as ever.”
And they did it without their top line, which was pointless, as Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm combined for just two shots on goal.
Like Bennett, the Flames stars on this night included unlikely goal scorers like Andrew Mangiapane, Michael Frolik, Travis Hamonic and Czarnik. Derek Ryan tied a career-high with three assists.
“We definitely need all four lines if we’re going to do something special this year, so to have them step up is massive for our whole team,” said Bennett, whose club had a 5-2 lead after two periods.
“They play important roles on our team – whether it’s killing penalties or blocking shots, those guys have their work boots on most nights, so it’s nice to see them getting rewarded with points,” added Mike Smith.
“We’re going to need everyone down the stretch so it’s good to see.”
The Flames ability to stop their four-game losing streak wouldn’t have been possible without the play of another lad who hasn’t played the role of hero in a while–Smith.
Fantastic in Florida two days earlier, Smith shone in his first of consecutive starts since Jan. 3, making 34 saves in a game full of pressure that saw the hosts score twice in the third to fall just short of a comeback.
“Every team is going to go through a little lull – I think it’s important to get it back as quickly as you can and start playing the hockey we’re capable of, and today was a good instance of that,” said Smith, who had no chance on three goals on a night in which a trio of Penguins snipes were on the power play and the other came seconds after a power play ended.
“Obviously it’s not perfect and we have some things to clean up, but everything is moving back to where we were buzzing. That’s a good team here and we felt good coming out of Florida even though we didn’t get two points. We wanted to finish the road trip off on the right note here and get two points tonight and I thought we battled hard to do that.”
The Flames, who scored five goals for the 18th time this season, return home for three games, including a rare afternoon game Monday against Arizona.