Panthers' Bennett earns scorn of Leafs fans after shrugging off questionable plays on Knies, Bunting

The veteran centre established himself as one the Toronto Maple Leafs' top antagonist after a Game 2 performance that included some questionable plays.

Coming into the Toronto Maple Leafs-Florida Panthers series Matthew Tkachuk was the odds-on favourite to become the most hated man in Canada's biggest city, but Sam Bennett has taken up that mantle.

Bennett has been all over the ice early in the series, producing a goal and an assist, but it's his physical play that's drawn the ire of the Maple Leafs faithful. The 26-year-old leads the Panthers with 14 hits in two games, but there were two plays in Game 2 where he went above and beyond the call of duty.

In the first incident a battle with Matthew Knies resulted in Bennett throwing the rookie to the ground.

That resulted in Knies leaving the game — a massive blow for the Maple Leafs considering he was playing so well.

While it's unclear if Knies will be ready for Game 3, it is clear the play was dangerous. After the game, Bennett shrugged it off when speaking to the media.

I think he tried to hit me and jumped out of the way. He got tied up in my arm there. That was pretty much it on that one.

Components of that explanation are true. Knies played a role in how the Panthers veteran's arm got tied up with him. However, it's abundantly clear that Bennett could've disengaged without showing off his wrestling skills.

Sam Bennett got under the skin of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night and made some plays that may crossed the line.  (Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY Sports)
Sam Bennett got under the skin of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night and made some plays that may crossed the line. (Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY Sports)

He had the option to drive Knies into the boards then try to rip his arm out and skate away. Players get tangled up during battles on the boards all the time and this is not an inevitable result.

The play with Knies wasn't Bennett's only notable incident on Thursday, either. He also drew a cross-checking penalty that was as nasty as they come.

Once again, his interpretation of the play didn't really pass the smell test.

I mean I just can't take that penalty there. Going for his shoulder. Just trying to move him out of the way. It rides up and gets him a little bit. That's one I'd like to take back for sure.

Let's assume for a moment that Bennett was going for his shoulder, which doesn't feel like a safe assumption based on that footage. For one, that's a terrible way to move someone of the way. Hitting a player way above his centre of gravity is exceedingly unlikely to dislodge him.

Even in a world where the first hit is an innocuous attempt to win a net-front battle, the second one was impossible to justify — especially if it came because he knew he already had a penalty coming.

Although the NHL department of player safety didn't throw the book at him, they acknowledged they thought the play was out of bounds.

Before this series many Toronto fans were vaguely aware of Bennett as a the guy who couldn't do a pull-up at the NHL combine or a player who never delivered on his offensive potential as a fourth overall pick.

Now, they know him a lot better — and favourability is breeding contempt.