SUNRISE — Sam Bennett had the same problem many of his Florida Panthers teammates did at the start of this season: He was getting a lot of scoring chances, the puck just was not going in.
In his first 12 games, Bennett had just one goal despite being on the ice for 73 high-danger scoring chances.
Those chances finally started to pay off when he scored twice in a win over the Anaheim Ducks on Nov. 5.
That started a stretch of four goals in three games for Bennett.
”I’m feeling better than I did at the beginning of the season,” he said. ”It is always nice to start building that confidence.”
The Panthers have not had any issue generating chances this season, but the team as a whole has had trouble finishing them.
The same Florida team that scored the most goals since 1996 last season is still leading the league in expected goals (62.1) but sits 17th in actual goals (47).
“I think it’s more frustrating when you are not getting chances,” Bennett said.
”We are playing good hockey. It’s just a matter of sticking with it and eventually, the goals are going to go in. We can’t get frustrated even though we may be a little bit. We just gotta focus on playing our game and eventually it is going to come.”
Bennett has fit into Florida’s high-octane offensive system well since his arrival in 2021, scoring 34 goals and 64 points in his first two seasons with the club. That included career-highs of 28 goals and 49 points in 71 games while helping the Panthers to the league’s best record last season.
While it seemed like those totals were padded by playing with Jonathan Huberdeau — who was traded during the offseason after putting up 115 points last season — his absence has not stopped Bennett from creating opportunities to score.
”He has had so many good chances,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “I think sometimes they just go for it and as soon as you get that belief, the puck gets off your stick quicker.”
Bennett has seen a wide variety of linemates — starting the season next to Matthew Tkachuk before Florida opted to stack the top line — but has recently found success alongside Eetu Luostarinen and Colin White.
“I see potential in that line — which is a coach’s most-hated word,” Maurice joked.
”But it is there because I am not sure what their strength will end up being and I think that is a positive. They could potentially play against the other team’s best and they could be that other line when you get on the road and they match Barkov with the checking line.”
It is a new situation for all components of the line.
Bennett is only in his second full season of being a bonafide top-six center after being used in a variety of roles with the Calgary Flames, Luostarinen just recently moved to wing from center and White is in his first year as a Panther.
“The interesting thing about Sam is that after playing years of games in the league, he does not have as much center-ice experience as you would think,” Maurice said.
”He has been on the wing for a fair amount or he has played on the third or fourth line where you don’t get the same experience because you are not playing against Leon Draisaitl or Connor McDavid. It is almost new to him and throwing Luostarinen next to him on the wing and Colin, who is a different style of player, I think they can put up points and generate offense in a straight-line attack slot way.”
Bennett’s two wingers found success together early on in the season on Lundell’s wing, but Maurice believes that the 6-foot-1 power forward’s tenacious play style could add a different element to that line.
”Luostarinen and White complement each other well and Bennett [is the driver],” Maurice said.
”Sometimes, the guy in the middle needs to know he is the driver, so he doesn’t need to defer to anyone to play a great game. I think the last four or five games, he has been really strong defensively, he has been physical and now pucks are going into the net.”
So far, it has played out exactly as the Panthers hoped.
Bennett’s second goal in Saturday’s loss to the Oilers is a prime example of that.
Luostarinen and Radko Gudas each connected on crisp breakout passes before White finished it off with a cross-ice feed to set up a driving Bennett for the goal.
”He makes it easy to play out there,” White said.
”I think he is such a fast player up the ice. Good things come when you move your feet like that. When he is skating that fast, he opens up some space for me to make that play.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
WASHINGTON CAPITALS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida; ESPN+
- Radio: WQAM 560-AM; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Last season: Panthers won 2-1 (d. Capitals 4-2 in first round)
- All-time regular season series: Washington leads 67-43-12, 9 ties