BUFFALO – By Monday at 5 p.m., Sabres prospect Zach Benson will know if his impressive preseason – he scored a team-high four goals and seven points – earned him an NHL roster spot.
The rookie scored again and recorded an assist in Friday’s finale, a 7-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins at KeyBank Center in which the Sabres blew a 3-1 second-period lead.
More on the game later.
Having been selected 13th overall this year, Benson, 18, figured to receive a long look during training camp. But the aggressive and talented winger quickly seized his chance and earned more action, playing in six of the Sabres’ seven preseason games.
Benson hardly loaded up on weak opponents fielding their B lineup or by skating with stars. Sure, that certainly helped him at times.
But he scored in different ways – twice on the power play, for example – with different linemates against different types of opponents.
On Friday, against a loaded Pittsburgh lineup featuring Sidney Crosby and other stars, he converted winger Jordan Greenway’s nifty backhand pass at the left side of the net early in the second period. He later recorded the primary assist on center Casey Mittelstadt’s third-period goal.
“He’s done it with different personnel in different situations in game after game,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “So he’s done very well for himself through camp. Not many things you could nitpick with. He’s got a lot of detail to his game and he’s been ready to play each and every shift, any situation, reads situations well, has helped guys around him on whatever line play better.”
If the Sabres keep Benson on the 23-man regular-season roster, he can play nine games before the first year of his entry-level contract kicks in.
“Whether they keep me or not, I’m taking it day by day still, trying to get one percent better every day,” said Benson, who would have to return to his junior team, the Wenatchee Wild, if he doesn’t crack the Sabres.
Mittelstadt, who joined the Sabres following his freshman year of college, understands how difficult it can be to play in the NHL as teenager.
“You look across the rink and obviously you grew up looking up to a lot of guys, especially in a game like tonight,” he said. “It can be tough. He’s a hound out there. He wants the puck and he works to get it and he can make plays when he has it.”
The Sabres, who played nearly every regular, made a lot of sloppy plays while allowing five unanswered goals before Mittelstadt scored.
Granato believes the Penguins possessed more of a “regular-season mentality” than the Sabres.
“You go into preseason games to get ready for the regular season, and I thought tonight there was plenty there that is going to help us get ready and better prepared for the regular season,” said Granato, whose Sabres open the campaign Thursday at home against the New York Rangers. “It was a wild game. It was a game that could’ve been 7-7 as well, the way it was. …
“If that helps us get ready for Thursday, it’s a good thing, too. I thought we were a little bit behind in certain situations, played a little sloppy. … The real stuff starts now.”
The Penguins scored three goals in 2:14 during the second period to erase the Sabres’ lead and four in 8:27.
Wingers Victor Olofsson and JJ Peterka (power play) scored the Sabres’ other goals.
Notes: Sabres center Peyton Krebs fought Crosby after Krebs and winger Tyson Jost hit Penguins defenseman Kris Letang behind the net. … Sabres goalie Devon Levi made 28 saves. … The Sabres announced a crowd of 14,875.