Zach Benson has played 69 games as a rookie. ©2024, Micheline Veluvolu

Sabres notes: Zach Benson scores 10th goal at end of surprising rookie season

BUFFALO – Seven months ago, rookie Zach Benson arrived here having just scored a hat trick for the Wenatchee Wild, the junior team seemingly everyone, including the Sabres, expected he would be returned to following training camp.

Benson’s preseason exploits in Washington illustrated that at just 18, he had possibly outgrown the Western Hockey League. But the diminutive winger’s limited options – as a teenager, he can only play in junior or the NHL – meant his time with the Sabres would likely be brief.

On Thursday, Benson, the 13th overall pick in 2023, scored his 10th goal in his 69th game with the Sabres, a 4-2 win over the Washington Capitals in KeyBank Center.

“A guy gets into double digits and you factor in his age and in no way, shape or form did we think he would be on our roster before training camp started when we drafted him last June,” coach Don Granato said following the Sabres’ home finale. “You just don’t think a kid that age can do it. But he has been impressive from Day One of training camp.”

As camp progressed, it became clear Benson’s mix of talent and smarts would help him earn a look from the Sabres during the regular season. He ended up staying all year.

Throughout the season, his play hasn’t dipped much, a testament to his maturity.

“It’s a marathon, it’s a battle, and you’re banged up and you fall out of rhythm, fall out of sync,” Granato said. “And he did. There were a couple spells where he didn’t look like himself and your mind goes, thinks about, ‘He’s a young guy, he’s never played at this level, is he going to pull out of it?’

“But his character habits, traits, love of the game, all that, his intelligence, he pulled out of it and he’s been finishing strong here.”

Benson, whose Sabres play the Florida Panthers this afternoon, the start of a two-game road trip to close the season, has finished a marathon NHL campaign in a groove. Thursday’s goal was his sixth point in his last five outings.

The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Benson opened the scoring Thursday in front of Capitals goalie Charlie Lindgren, redirecting winger Jeff Skinner’s shot from the point as he battled Hendrix Lapierre for positioning.

“That was a big goal tonight, a real big goal in an area that’s a gritty, tough area, the front of the net,” Granato said. “He found his way there and he’s proven that he’s belonged here this year.”

Benson said often practices tipping pucks.

“It’s definitely something I like to work on,” he said. “I tend to be in front of the net quite a bit.”

Almost halfway through Thursday’s third period, Sabres defenseman Connor Clifton carried the puck over the Washington blue line before dropping it to winger Jack Quinn.

As Quinn skated to the top of the right circle and moved into the slot, Clifton took off for the net.

Right away, Granato knew the play he called the “kick-out drive” would result in a goal.

“It was one of those plays where you just know on the entry,” he said.

The play pushed Washington’s defensemen back, giving Quinn ample time and space to pull the puck back and pick his spot.

“It’s one of those plays where you know on the bench he is going to score,” Granato said. “He is going to have too much time and space to prep a puck. … It’s a tough spot for a goalie to be in. These guys can pick you apart from that range, that close, with that much time. You just knew Jack was going to find the net on that one.”

Quinn, of course, beat Lindgren from the middle of the slot, his third goal in eight games since returning from a lower-body injury.

“I’m feeling pretty good,” Quinn said. “… The first few games I felt a little behind and then kind of found my stride, and probably once I scored the pair of goals here at home (last Friday), I’ve felt a lot better.”

Around the final horn Thursday, Washington’s T.J. Oshie hit Sabres center Tage Thompson. Defensemen Rasmus Dahlin immediately made Oshie pay, igniting a melee involving all five Sabres.

Thompson and Sabres winger Jordan Greenway each earned fighting majors.

“I loved the fact that all five of those guys were involved, involved very quick, decisively, and loved it,” Granato said. “Loved everything about it.”

Notes: Former Sabres captain Kyle Okposo, who could face his old team for the first time today, has played just five games since Buffalo traded him to the Panthers on March 8. … The Sabres did not skate Friday before flying to Florida. … The Sabres close the season Monday against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

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