Kings left wing Dustin Penner is an enigma. He's a skillful player in the muscular body of an enforcer, a proven scorer who produced only seven goals this season, a bright thinker in a game that's too fast to ponder much of anything.
He had no points in the Kings' last nine regular-season games but had a goal and an assist in their first-round elimination of the Vancouver Canucks. Slotted alongside the savvy Mike Richards and quick-shooting Jeff Carter, Penner was an irresistible force and an unmovable object in the Kings' two playoff victories over the St. Louis Blues, recording a goal and assist in Game 1 and two key assists in Game 2 to put the Kings in command, 2-0, heading into Game 3 on Thursday at Staples Center.
His performance is a reprise of his success with the Ducks during their 2007 Stanley Cup run, when he contributed three goals and eight points while teamed with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. The young trio was split up when Penner signed a five-year, $21.25-million offer sheet with the Edmonton Oilers that summer, and without them to exert peer pressure his passion soon vanished.
Certainly, his scoring dried up this season and he was a healthy scratch five times in February. Now a veteran with the label of "disappointment," his to shake or cement, he sees a distinct contrast to his first playoff experience.
"They're different because you're kind of in the foreground," he said Wednesday. "As a younger guy you just try to get along, do your job. Obviously you're excited to be in the playoffs and you think it's going to be this easy all the time. You're kind of naive to that fact that this isn't going to be like this every year.
"It wasn't for me. I went to Edmonton and didn't make it for three years, four years, whatever it was. This year, where I am now, I'm just trying to stay in the moment and making the most of this opportunity."
There was little reason to expect this from Penner following a difficult season made tougher by his wife's filing for divorce. Blues Coach Ken Hitchcock said a scouting report by one of the team's coaches anticipated Penner's revival. If so, that coach should be buying lottery tickets.
"This was 12 games left in the season that I think people started to notice that he's dug in, for whatever reason," Hitchcock said. "Maybe the impact of the new coach, the linemates, whatever. We saw that this is a familiar player. This looks like the same player that played in Anaheim."
But not the same person.
Penner is still funny and self-deprecating, able to joke that he could appreciate being leveled by Blues forward T.J. Oshie in Game 2 at St. Louis. "It was a great hit. I haven't been hit that hard in a while," Penner said. "It actually almost felt good, it was so pure."
Richards came to his defense and a scuffle ensued in which Penner got Blues forward David Backes in a headlock. Penner called his move a "rear naked chokehold. That's what they call it in UFC. It's a terminology I'm not familiar with. It's just what I was told it was."
Wrestling with his demons has been more difficult for Penner than that. But if Penner can continue to be inspired by Richards' relentless work ethic and Carter's skills, he can have a huge impact for a team that has rattled the Blues physically and mentally and has forced them into making uncharacteristic mistakes. After a season filled with lows, Penner is approaching a high.
"Obviously, you need good friends and good teammates. It hasn't been just this year. It's been up and down for a while," he said. "It's just one of those things that you have to just keep on believing that there are going to be better days ahead, even if it doesn't look like it."