Sam Bennett was promised he’d get a bigger role under Darryl Sutter.
They don’t come much bigger than being asked to shut down the world’s best player.
That was the position the veteran winger was thrust into Friday night after Mikael Backlund was a surprise scratch due to injury, pushing Bennett to the middle of the most important line Calgary has against Edmonton’s twin terrors.
The assignment came with a twist, as the man he spent a good chunk of his night battling was his long-time minor hockey linemate, Connor McDavid.
By night’s end No. 97 found a way once again to be the difference, breaking a 2-2 tie seven minutes into the third period with a power play goal through traffic and Jacob Markstrom to drive another stake through the Flames playoff hopes.
However, as Flames games teeter on the brink of going from crucial to meaningless, efforts like Bennett’s become focal points.
With six losses in their last seven games the Flames will now turn their attention to doing what seemed unfathomable three months ago: selling.
And no one will attract more attention as a playoff add than Bennett, the 24-year-old post-season beast who asked for a trade earlier this year.
Those around the league who now realize the restricted free agent is attainable before the Apr. 12 trade deadline saw him help keep McDavid off the score sheet at even strength.
They saw him win all four faceoffs he took, while adding rare power-play duties to his regular penalty-killing role. It was while shorthanded that he made one of the biggest plays of the game.
Early in the second period of a 1-1 game Bennett got his stick in the way of a Tyson Barrie power-play blast that bounced onto Sean Monahan’s tape. Spotting Matthew Tkachuk racing out of the penalty box, Monahan hit him with a pass Tkachuk took in alone and buried with a nifty backhand deke past Mike Smith.
Alas, like almost every Flames effort the last two weeks, it wasn’t enough as McDavid’s seventh goal in seven outings against Calgary handed the visitors a 3-2 loss.
“He’s a lot better now than even he was as a kid — I don’t think I have any edge over him that way,” said Bennett who played six seasons on McDavid’s wing for the York-Simcoe Express, and two with the Toronto Marlboros.
“He’s so fast, so you’ve just got to try to slow him down as much as you can. Obviously playing centre I’m comfortable with. Backs plays a big role with this team shutting down guys, so obviously I’m not going to fill those shoes. But I look at myself as a guy that can fill in anywhere and play any position, so I just tried to do my job tonight. It’s frustrating we didn’t get the win.”
Frustrating indeed that yet another game in which the Flames felt they played well enough to win, they once again failed to get the job done.
“The difference is — this has happened a couple times against these guys in this rink — it’s an even game and they score late,” said a thoroughly dejected Tkachuk.
“They come out of here with two and we come out of here with absolutely nothing.”
Michael Stone gave the Flames a 1-0 lead with a first-period point-blast made possible by the dogged determination of Bennett’s third-line wingers, Milan Lucic and Andrew Mangiapane.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored Edmonton’s first of two power-play goals on the night early in the second before the teams traded goals to set up a third period with the game tied 2-2.
Cue McDavid on the Oilers vaunted power play.
“I think it was pretty even — we had opportunities to go ahead or to tie it up and didn’t,” said Sutter, lamenting an open net missed by Elias Lindholm that hopped over his stick.
“It wasn’t your Battle of Alberta Game. I thought it was a sluggish game, quite honest. When it’s 3-2 Lindy has a chance with the goalie out, you’ve got to bury it. You’ve got to get to 65 minutes, you can’t just be satisfied saying you’re close or we tried hard.”
No one was satisfied or taking anything out of yet another game in which the Flames played well but simply weren’t good enough.
So, guys like Bennett, Derek Ryan and David Rittich will be shopped, which is why his outing Friday night did well to bolster his oft-discussed stock.
“He can move around the lineup — I trust him moving around,” said Sutter.
“When Backs wasn’t able to go it was easy. We only got the five centremen, including the taxi squad, so Sam was logical to go in there. He gives you everything he’s got every night. He’s been fine. All I’ve asked him to do is go in straight lines and play hard and make easy plays and I think he’s done that.”
You can bet there are plenty of teams lining up now to have him do that in another uniform, making his trade wish come true and kick-starting the obvious overhaul necessary in Calgary.