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‘He’s leading it’: Sam Bennett continues coming up big for Cup Finals-bound Panthers

The Florida Panthers had just under a minute left at the end of the first period Saturday to make a play happen as they corralled the puck at center ice. Evan Rodrigues whacked at the puck, which found its way to Sam Bennett.

As Bennett entered the offensive zone, he and Rodrigues executed a perfect give-and-go, with Bennett firing a one-timer from the left circle to beat New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin up high.

The Panthers had an early lead in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final. They never gave it up after that, beating the Rangers 2-1 on Saturday at Amerant Bank Arena to punch their ticket back to the Stanley Cup Finals for a second consecutive year.

“The close out games are always the hardest ones,” Bennett said. “It just shows how dedicated this group is to winning.”

Florida Panthers center Sam Bennett (9) celebrates with teammate Niko Mikkola (77) after scoring a goal against the New York Rangers during the first period of Game 6 during the Eastern Conference finals of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs at the Amerant Bank Arena on Saturday, June 1, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla.
Florida Panthers center Sam Bennett (9) celebrates with teammate Niko Mikkola (77) after scoring a goal against the New York Rangers during the first period of Game 6 during the Eastern Conference finals of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs at the Amerant Bank Arena on Saturday, June 1, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla.

While the Panthers always preach the team-first mentality, it was a bit fitting that Bennett provided the first blow that put the momentum in Florida’s favor the rest of the night.

Panthers coach Paul Maurice on multiple occasions this season has referred to Bennett as an “identity player” on the team. He plays with the grit, physicality and tenacity that drives Florida’s success and thrives in the playoffs, even if he gets overshadowed by the star power on the roster.

And since returning after missing five games early in the playoffs due to a hand/wrist he sustained in Game 2 of Florida’s first-round series against Tampa Bay, Bennett has made a notable impact for the Panthers.

Through 10 games since his return, Bennett has logged eight points (five goals, three assists). That includes a six-point effort in the Eastern Conference final.

Bennett’s four goals this series tied Matthew Tkachuk for the most goals by a Panthers player in the round before the finals. His three consecutive games with a goal — Games 4-6 of the Rangers series — also matched the longest streak in Panthers postseason history.

“He was great,” said star Panthers winger Matthew Tkachuk, who has played on a line with Bennett each of the past two seasons. “Obviously coming back in the Boston series, he came back and wanted to get in the lineup as quick as he could after speaking with doctors and everything. I’m sure after missing a couple of weeks, it’s a little bit of an adjustment back in the lineup, but now him being fully healthy, you can see what he is doing out there. You can see what he’s capable of. The way his physicality and his speed just kind of gets on the defenses and he’s so easy to play with. I’ve played with him for a while now. I’m very proud of the way he’s been playing. He’s leading it each and every night. He’s playing super physical and that’s what drives our line.”

‘He plays so big’: Panthers’ Sam Bennett makes big statement in return from injury

But it wasn’t always easy for Bennett as he returned. Bennett didn’t take faceoffs in the first six games after he returned as he regained strength in his hand. That meant Bennett would begin draws on the wing and then have to shift into his center position after the faceoff.

He took one draw in Game 3 against the Rangers, went 2 for 4 in Game 4, 4 for 9 in Game 5 and 3 for 5 in Game 6.

“It felt good. I started to feel a little bit more like myself as the series went on,” Bennett said. “It definitely was nice to be able to stick handle a little better than it was earlier. It feels good to be back to feeling right.”

Florida Panthers center Sam Bennett (9) shoots the puck past New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin (31) for a goal during the first period of Game 6 during the Eastern Conference finals of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs at the Amerant Bank Arena on Saturday, June 1, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla.
Florida Panthers center Sam Bennett (9) shoots the puck past New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin (31) for a goal during the first period of Game 6 during the Eastern Conference finals of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs at the Amerant Bank Arena on Saturday, June 1, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla.

Even with that, he stayed true to his identity.

In the Rangers series, Bennett had a team-high 27 hits, was second on the team in shot attempts (47) and fifth in scoring chances (15).

“There isn’t any protectionist on the ice,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “He’s just playing the game. His effort level [is the same]. He just couldn’t do as much three weeks ago. The compete and the effort never changes. He’s as consistent a driver as we have that his game looks pretty much the same in terms of how hard he plays every single night. It’s what he is.”

What Bennett is, in many ways, is an individual representation of the Stanley Cup Finals-bound Florida Panthers.

And as such, his focus is already on the next step.

“We have one goal in mind,” Bennett said, referring to winning the Stanley Cup. “That’s it. We’re not going to be satisfied until we accomplish that.”

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