Florida Panthers prospect Mike Benning’s first season of collegiate hockey was a completely different experience.
The University of Denver defenseman spent 2020-21 in a bubble, taking online classes and playing in empty arenas.
“It was a totally different mindset,” Benning told Florida Hockey Now. “It was kind of difficult to get into a rhythm and get a routine down.”
Benning’s Pioneers missed the NCAA tournament for just the second time since 2006-07 — both in consecutive seasons.
Finishes like that became very unusual for a college hockey powerhouse like Denver, but the 2021-22 season put them right back on track.
The Pioneers ended this season 29-9-1 in the regular season and now find themselves in the Frozen Four.
Denver is set to face off with the University of Michigan in Boston on Thursday.
“It’s playoff hockey,” Benning said. “Every weekend, every game, every shift, we have to be our best.
“Michigan, Minnesota, and Minnesota State are going to bring their best show, so we have to bring ours.”
Benning was a big part of their success during his sophomore season.
The 5-9, 178-pound defenseman led all Denver blueliners in points (34) and goals (14), crushing his total of 11 points from the season prior.
Drafted in the fourth round of the 2020 NHL Draft by the Panthers, Benning seemingly fits the mold Florida is curating on its blueline.
He jumps up in on the play and contributes offensively with both his shot and his passing, very much like players like Gus Forsling and Aaron Ekblad do on a nightly basis in Sunrise.
“My style of play is kind of what they are doing there and they have a great team,” Benning said.
“That is the reason why they picked me, they drafted me because of my style of play and how it works in their system, so I am looking forward to it.”
Benning has had his eye on this Panthers team all season as well.
“Every guy there is really top-notch,” he said. “There are no bad players there.
“Aaron Ekblad would be unreal to play with, obviously, he has a big body and is good all around the ice, even a guy like Brandon Montour, I think his offensive output is very phenomenal too, and the same with MacKenzie Weegar.
“Those guys, I look up to and their style of play is awesome to watch.”
His dad, Brian Benning, was a member of the Panthers during its inaugural season in 1993 and Mike is looking to follow in his footsteps.
“He has been a really big role model to me and to be in the same system as him is an honor,” Benning said.
“I’ve gotten input from him and my whole life, he has been there. Things have changed because he is an old guy now, but it is exciting to be tied up in that stuff.”
In the short term, he has a matchup with Michigan and fellow Florida prospect Mackie Samoskevich for a spot in the championship game to prepare for on Thursday.
Although he has never talked to Samoskevich before with development camps canceled due to Covid, Benning is looking forward to a friendly rivalry within the Panthers organization.
“It’s going to be nice having that same team rivalry,” he said.
“It’s going to be good, I don’t know much about the guy, but I’m just excited.”
The Pioneers last played on March 26, leaving a nearly two-week layover before his semifinal matchup.
For Benning, the focus now is to stay sharp so he can help Denver win its ninth Division I Hockey Championship in school history.
“For me, it’s about keeping my routine and having a good mindset going into things,” he said.
“It’s always exciting going into big games and I’m sure the crowd isn’t going to disappoint. It’s kind of about staying in the moment and taking care of my body, myself, and all of those off-ice things at school.
“I’m just focused on going to Boston and playing my best game.”