Penguins notebook: Winger Bennett returns to practice after lengthy absence
In his first practice with the Penguins in more than a month, winger Beau Bennett wore a black jersey, which put him in a group with the team's top two forward lines.
Unlike Kris Letang, who wore a gold jersey as he recovered from an upper-body injury in December, nothing about Bennett's appearance signaled to teammates that he needed to be defended with care.
Yet Bennett, absent from the lineup since Dec. 14 against Washington, when he suffered a shoulder injury, sensed both he and the players around him needed to pick and choose when to embrace physicality and when to avoid it Wednesday at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry.
“I've got to start pushing and shoving a little bit harder,” Bennett said. “But each day, I'm making good progress, and today was another good step in the right direction.
“A couple of the drills today I shied away from just because I don't want the D to back away when I'm out there. It's hard for them to gauge when I'm out there, and then they have to play less than 100 percent. So some of the drills out there, I didn't partake in, just on my own accord. I think, going forward, it will only get better.”
Bennett skated with centers Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, but his line fate remains far from clear. He practiced only a couple of times and played for just a few minutes with Mike Sullivan as the Penguins coach before his shoulder injury removed him from the lineup.
“I know what kind of player he is, and I know where I think he can help us win games,” Sullivan said. “He should be able to help us on the power play. I think I have options with him as to which line I can use him with, and I haven't made that decision yet.
“I thought he did pretty well for the first practice back. ... When he's in the same color jersey, my hope, anyway, is that he's just one of the other guys out there.”
Bennett described his shoulder as “healed up.” He believes a return to the lineup before the All-Star break is a reasonable goal. He trusts in the amount of conditioning he did during the past two weeks.
“All I can ask for is to play and make an impact and play big minutes,” Bennett said. “I know I'm a little rusty. I mean, even today, I missed a lot of passes I normally don't miss. Playing with NHL guys, you realize the speed, it's really fast out there.”
Of the hit into the boards from Washington's T.J. Oshie that put him on the injured reserve list, Bennett shared a sentiment that came close to criticism.
“It's not a dirty hit,” he said. “It's a dirty area to hit.
“Oshie, he's always been a good hitter. He's never really had any cheap shots or anything like that. ... If that happens in the middle of the ice, it's a no-problem hit. But being three feet away from the boards, I went right into my shoulder, and that's the way it goes.”
No practice for Letang
Letang, who came back from an unspecified upper-body injury to play in Monday's loss to St. Louis, did not skate Wednesday. Sullivan said the coaching staff gave Letang a maintenance day.
“With Kris, it's just going to be a day-to-day process at this point,” he said. “We kept him off the ice today. We'll see how he responds tomorrow.”
Ready for rough stuff?
On the eve of the Penguins' first game of the season against Philadelphia, Crosby indicated the rivalry between the Keystone State clubs might draw additional tension from where each side sits in the Eastern Conference's Metropolitan Division just past the schedule's midway point.
The Penguins (49 points) enter Thursday fifth in the Metropolitan, while the Flyers (48) are sixth. Both are just a few points away from the conference's last wild-card spot.
“We know how close everyone is in the standings, so you should see two desperate hockey teams,” Crosby said.
In response to the suggestion that the Penguins-Flyers rivalry tends to bring out ugliness, Crosby offered a shrug.
“It's been that way for a long time,” he said, “and I don't see it changing.”