BUFFALO – Barely a week ago, it felt like Zach Benson might receive a long look during training camp before the Sabres returned him to junior hockey. But four games, two goals and four points later, the prospect is fighting to earn an NHL roster spot.
Benson, 18, enjoyed another terrific outing in Saturday afternoon’s entertaining 4-3 preseason victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets in KeyBank Center, scoring the late power-play winner after the Sabres roared back from a 3-0 deficit.
“Your dream and goal is to play in the NHL,” said Benson, the 13th overall pick this year. “I know my job right now is just to keep pushing, keep playing my best. That’s kind of my main thing, just keep getting better every day.”
Benson, who also recorded an assist Saturday, has kept improving. At first, the Sabres planned to play him in three preseason games. But he performed so well early – he registered one goal and two points in his debut – they’ve been awarding him more action.
Some of the Sabres’ other top forward prospects – Jiri Kulich and Lukas Rousek, for example – haven’t made an impact during camp. Meanwhile, Matt Savoie has been sidelined with an upper-body injury all camp.
So Benson might be in position to grab perhaps the one forward spot the Sabres have available.
Of course, the 5-foot-10, 170-pound Benson possesses an array of talents. But what else has stood out?
“Lots of intangibles beyond skill,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “Compete. Sense, feel. Situational awareness. He’s a very, very intelligent hockey player.”
Skating with established talent, including some of the Sabres’ best players, has helped Benson showcase those intangibles. On Saturday, he played right wing for the second time beside Tage Thompson and Jeff Skinner.
The trio got off to a rough start, compiling a minus-3 rating as the Blue Jackets scored twice in the first period and early in the second.
“You don’t want to get dashed up ever, but I thought we did a good job as a line just to kind of put it in the past,” said Benson, whose four points tie him with Thompson for the team lead. “We knew we weren’t at our best, and I thought after that we started pushing, playing in the O-zone.”
Skinner’s power-play goal midway through the second period gave the Sabres life before defenseman Henri Jokiharju scored early in the third. Benson assisted on Skinner’s second power-play goal halfway through the period.
In junior hockey, Benson plays the flank on the power play. But with Thompson and Skinner in those spots, the Sabres have been using him as the bumper in the slot area.
Benson scored from in that position 14:14 into the third period, moving from the inside edge of the right circle to backhand captain Kyle Okposo’s rebound in.
While it was just a preseason game, the Sabres believe the come-from-behind triumph will be beneficial. The Blue Jackets, it should be noted, dressed most of their best players.
“That felt like a game from last year,” said Sabres goalie Devon Levi, who stopped 26 shots. “That was a like a high-intense, high-emotion NHL hockey game. So to taste that before going into the (regular) season, just feeling what it’s like is a really great reminder. That was a battle – mentally, physically.”
Granato said his players “were just about to get in their own head before they elevated.”
“That’s for all the guys,” he said. “And for the young guys, the guys I thought were good again. They showed a lot of skill and a lot of potential, so just another experience for them.”
When Columbus’ Dmitri Voronkov knocked Levi down beside the net late in the second period, Sabres center Dylan Cozens jumped him, igniting a scrum.
Cozens received the only penalty, a roughing call.
Granato said the quick response sends a big message.
“It’s only preseason, but to have the emotion and to get charged up is great,” he said. “You’ve just got to be able to reel it in and focus, and I thought we did that in the third.”
Notes: Winger Brandon Biro, who’s battling to make the Sabres, left the ice bleeding after Cozens’ shot hit him in the mouth in the first period. He returned to the game wearing a full face shield after receiving stitches. … Okposo, who registered three primary assists, and winger Alex Tuch both made their preseason debuts. … Sabres defenseman Joseph Cecconi, a Youngstown native, played his second preseason game. … The Sabres announced a crowd of 12,209.
— Buffalo Hockey Moments (@SabresPlays) September 30, 2023