By Larry Wigge
Dustin Penner is big and he's strong -- all 6-4, 245 pounds of him. He has been on a journey in these playoffs. Appparently, like he was on in Game 5 Tuesday night.
"He had a journey tonight," said Los Angeles King coach Darryl Sutter. "I stuck with him. He struggled early in the game ... but I stuck with him."
Journey's aside, Penner scored the overtime winner with 2 minutes 18 seconds left to give the Kings a 4-3 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes -- en route to a four games to one Western Conference finals matchup.
"It's the biggest goal of my career so far," Penner explained. "Hopefully, there are a couple more waiting in the finals."
Penner now has three goals and 10 points in 14 postseason games, after struggling to score seven goals and 10 assists in 65 regular-season games.
In a matter of seconds, the puck came bouncing out to Penner, who quickly sent a wrist shot that eluded Phoenix goalie Mike Smith. Of course, in Dustin's mind the play took more than a matter of minutes -- it took him about five minutes to describe.
"Elation," said Penner of his feeling when the shot went in. "We had a draw just off center on blue lines. Mike Richards went back to Slava Voynov. Then, Slava threw a bouncer off the boards. I watched it hop a couple times, ended up I think it was Keith Yandle's stick. I retrieved it. Threw it to Jeff Carter coming down the right side. He threw it on the net. Bounced down a few more times. I just waited for it to settle down. I just followed the bouncing puck until it was in a good enough position for me to shoot it."
Elation and jumping around in victory as the Kings go to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1993.
Dustin Penner. He of the big contract. Trade bait at the deadline, only there were no takers. In the final year of a contract he signed for five years, $21.25 million with the Kings. He is making $4.25 million in 2011, pretty good change -- most would say he isn't worth it, but boy would they like him now.
The Winkler, Manitoba, native, is once again in the Cup finals, where he was before he signed the big contract. That didn't work out too well for Penner, after the Anaheim Ducks won it in 2007.
"I guess when you're in a hole that no one can really dig you out of except for yourself," said Penner. "I put that pressure and that stress on myself to get me out of where I was. I had great support from teammates, family, friends, the organization as a whole."
Penner was asked if this experience was similiar to Anaheim when, he was just 24-years-old.
"Definitely there are some similarities," he said. "I'm in a different place mentally. When you're in your first year, everything is new. You don't really comprehend the situation in front of you.
"Now, I think I have a better general overview of what it's like, how hard it is to get to where we are now."
In this most unusual and inexplicable Stanley Cup playoff season, where the Kings have established an NHL record by winning eight games in a row on the road, it may as well have been Penner who scored the overtime winner.
It was a challenging season for Penner, on a personal level, going through a messy public divorce. On a professional level, trying to earn coach Sutter's respect, after Terry Murray had been let go in December.
And, oh yes, there was the injured-while-eating-pancakes-routine that followed Penner around. Call it Aunt Jemima's Revenge.
"I woke up fine, sat down to eat and it locked right up. It never happened to me before. I couldn't stand up. I was probably at the third stage of evolution. So my wife helped me get dressed. Then I drove to the rink here to hope they could do some magic and get it opened up. Kinger (trainer Chris Kingsley) just looked at me and said, 'Go home.' So I got some treatment and went home.
"Apparently it's one of those mysterious things, where you can throw it out from sneezing. I just leaned over to dip into some delicious pancakes that my wife made. It's just like it the pain wraps around you and squeezes."
Many of us are painfully familiar with, back injuries can occur through the simplest of activities: Getting out of bed, tying one's shoes, lifting a child. Or eating a plate of pancakes.
The undrafted Winthrop, Manitoba, native, was dug in the last few months in Los Angeles. He had seven goals and 10 assists in 65 games for the Kings. Penner was back -- the same guy who had 29 goals as a rookie for the Ducks in winning a Stanley Cup in 2007 and had a career-high 32 goals for the Edmonton Oilers in 2009-10.
"You know, he's done it every year, scored 20-25 goals until this year. You don't just lose those skills," said Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter. "And I think that's what he expects of himself.
"The biggest thing I said when I first came is, it's totally unfair, just because he's 240 pounds, to expect a guy to be a physical presence if that's not natural for him, but he can protect the puck and he can be stronger around the net and when he does that, he can have an impact on your team."
Dustin Penner sees a lot of the Cup champion Ducks in these Los Angeles Kings. That's kind of a coincidence because the Kings are starting to see a little of the 2007 Dustin Penner in him.
"The one thing I've noticed with this group is a willingness to believe in the system and believe in ourselves as a team," said the 29-year-old winger. "We have that quiet confidence, a bit of a calmness because we're so focused and intense."
But this from-rags-to-riches-story didn't all of a sudden come to life across the NHL without a lot of hard work on Dustin's part. It's hard to keep the faith, when coaches keep telling you that you're either too small as Dustin was as a kid ... or too gawky as he was after his EIGHT-INCH growth spurt.
"I kept at it because I saw other players that I knew weren't better than me getting an opportunity," he said. "I think about it all the time. If Grant Standbrook (the University of Maine) hadn't found me that one summer, I'd probably be working at the gas station in Winkler right now.
"Looking back on it now, I think taking this route to the NHL probably made me work harder and learn more."
Goal-scoring comes at a premium in the playoffs. Most goals, in fact, can be traced back to a strong play along the boards or in front of the net.
And what a presence he's been.
"I always tell people, 'Don't give up on your dreams without a fight,' " he said. "You can wait for what seems like a lifetime for your dream and then, all of a sudden, it happens in a split second."
Not so suddenly Penner went from this 5-6 teen-ager struggling to get picked to play ... anywhere ... to a 6-4 power forward scoring with regularity in the playoffs.
"I'm a person who likes challenges," Penner said. "I always thought the biggest challenge was to get somewhere with my hockey career. But now that I'm here in the NHL, the challenges are even greater to stay here and excel.
"But it's not hard to remind myself where I’ve been and where I am right now. For me, the keys are simple: Move the puck, move my feet and go to the net. Hey, I've done that in my dreams all of my life."
That was never part of Dustin Penner's future. Playing in the NHL? It's been well worth the wait.