Follow @frozenroyaltyEL SEGUNDO, CA — At the same time that fans of the Los Angeles Kings are rejoicing in their team’s early success in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, having eliminated the Vancouver Canucks in five games, and jumping out to a 2-0 lead over the St. Louis Blues in their second round series, they are also scratching their collective heads while asking, in unison…
…who’s wearing number 25, and what did he do with Dustin Penner?
All kidding aside, Penner, who has been the target of so many for his poor play throughout much of the season, has looked nothing like the player who raised the ire of fans, game after game.
In fact, Penner began to raise the level of his play over the last few weeks of the regular season, and it continued to improve in the first round of the playoffs. He scored the game-winning goal in Game 1 of the Kings’ first round series against the Canucks, and tallied an assist in Game 2 of that series, but was held off the scoresheet in the last three games.
But do not let those numbers, or the lack thereof, fool you, as he continued to improve as the series wore on, so much so, that Kings head coach Darryl Sutter moved him up to the second line, with right wing Jeff Carter and center Mike Richards.
Against the Blues, the move has paid dividends, with Penner scoring a goal, and contributing three big assists in the first two games of the series, which continues tonight at Staples Center in Los Angeles (Game 3; 7:00 PM PDT).
Compared to the Dustin Penner everyone is accustomed to seeing this season, the one currently wearing number 25 is totally different, and in a positive way. Indeed, he is now skating well, hustling on the backcheck and in the defensive zone, using his body effectively on the forecheck, and he is getting involved in the play around, and in front of the net—he has been dangerous on most every shift.
In other words, the Dustin Penner now wearing a Kings jersey bears little, if any, resemblance, outside of his physical appearance, to the one we are all used to.
“He’s played well lately, and I like having him on the line,” said Richards. “Much like [rookie left wing Dwight King], he’s a big body, and protects the puck well. He’s a confident guy in the playoffs, having won the Stanley Cup with Anaheim. He knows that he can step up in big situations, which he’s done.”
“He’s a big, strong guy, and we’re getting a lot more opportunities with him,” added Richards. “He clears a lot of space with how big he is.”
Carter took particular note of Penner’s effectiveness on the forecheck, and—hold onto your hats—his speed.
“He’s a big guy that, when he’s on his game, he’s moving and getting in on the forecheck,” said Carter. “He’s been real good for our line, the last two games. We’ve scored some goals, but he’s [also] been real strong defensively, and down low, winning puck battles, so it’s been going well.”
“He’s such a big guy, that when he gets the puck down low, and in front of the net, he’s pretty tough to take off of it,” added Carter. “I was actually surprised—I didn’t realize that he can move as [well] as he can when he gets going. He’s got some wheels for such a big guy. When he gets going, he’s pretty deadly going down that wing. He’s got a great shot, too, so I think, with [Penner and I], if we keep going how we are down the wing, it’s going to be good.”
“Once that confidence gets there in your game, it just rolls, and we’re starting to see that in his game now. He’s been working hard, and he’s starting to get rewarded for it.”
Penner is certainly taking full advantage of his opportunity to play top six minutes, after being unable to earn that privilege during the regular season.
“Carter is an elite skater, and so is Richards,” said Penner. “Both have played at a high level for their whole lives. Carter has a great shot. You’ve heard from [Kings President/General Manager] Dean [Lombardi] about what Richards is like. He brings the same work ethic every day, he’s a great two-way center, he’s got high-end offensive skill, and they feed off each other well, because of the length of time they’ve spent playing together. It’s easy for me to jump on that line and play with those guys.”
“It’s nice [to contribute, and to earn the right to play second-line minutes],” he said. “It’s not nearly finished, but it’s a good start. I’m just trying to simplify things, and work at it one game at a time, one shift at a time.”
Sutter pointed out that if anyone has high expectations of his performance, it is Penner himself.
“He’s done it every year, except this year,” Sutter noted. “He’s scored twenty or 25 goals the last three or four years, so I think that’s what he expects out of himself.”
“The biggest thing I said about Dustin is that it’s totally unfair, just because a guy [weighs] 240 pounds, to expect him to be a physical presence if that’s not natural for him,” Sutter added. “But he can protect the puck, and he can be stronger around the net. When he does that, he can have an impact on your team.”
“It was the same thing when I coached against him when he was in Anaheim and Edmonton. When he was doing those things, he was a tough guy to handle. But when he’s not, he’s not effective.”
With his poor play throughout most of the regular season, with heavy criticism coming from every direction, and with off-ice issues distracting him, Penner could have allowed himself to become totally discouraged, and he could have easily packed it in for the season. But to his credit, Penner continued to believe in himself. He kept his head, he dealt with the distractions, and has been one of the Kings’ best players to this point in the playoffs.
“It’s working for me right now, so that’s how I’m approaching it,” said Penner. “I’m just trying to stay in the moment, and make the most of this opportunity.”
“[His sub-par play] hasn’t been just this year,” added Penner. “It’s been up and down for awhile. You just have to keep on believing that there are going to be better days ahead, even if it doesn’t look like it.”
Raw Audio Interviews
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)
Jeff Carter (8:24)
Drew Doughty (3:39)
Anze Kopitar (4:25)
Darryl Sutter (May 1, 2012; 5:02)
Dustin Penner (8:52)
Mike Richards (10:08)
Darryl Sutter (May 2, 2012; 11:34)
2012 Western Conference Semi-Final, Los Angeles Kings vs St. Louis Blues, Game 2 Highlights, April 30, 2012
Used with permission. All videos provided by KingsVision at LAKings.com, or NHL.com require Adobe Flash Player. As such, they are not viewable on iOS devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch).
2012 Western Conference Semi-Final, Los Angeles Kings vs St. Louis Blues, Game 1 Highlights, April 28, 2012
Used with permission.
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I’ll be the first to say that I savaged Dustin Penner during the regular season. I also bashed coach Terry Murray. They both deserved the criticism they received. I did NOT bash Dustin Brown, Brad Richardson and several other Kings who were on the chopping block at some time or another this year, because they had heart and went all out, no matter what. I’m also not sure what criticism of Penner was “not deserved” during the regular season, but Penner has definitely stepped it up in the playoffs. I very much respect his sense of humor, considering all that has happened to him this year, and I was wrong when I doubted that Penner could come back from his mediocrity and be a force in the playoffs. Everyone loves an underdog — and Penner has surely had his moments of “dogging it” during this past season. ;) Go Penner. Kings! All is forgiven if you bring us to the promised land! :)