"I am more tenacious on the puck and not moving around depending on who I am playing with. I move my feet. I'm playing my game and things are happening for me." -- Dustin Penner
"The main catalyst in all of this is confidence," Penner told NHL.com.
Why does he appear stronger this season? Why is he playing well no matter his linemates? Why is he more relaxed?
Confidence. Confidence. Confidence.
That was never more apparent than Thursday night when Penner scored his sixth and seventh goals of the season and added three assists in the Oilers' 6-4 comeback victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
"I was trying to set small goals first, I wasn't expecting to see my name up with the league leaders," said Penner, fourth in NHL in scoring with 14 points. "That would have to be the best game of my career, certainly statistically. The stars lined up for me and my linemates tonight. It feels really good. I don't know the last time I was on a team that bounced back from down as much as we were. That's one of the games where you know the true meaning of momentum."
Linemate Ales Hemsky also had a five-point night, finishing with a goal and four assists to help the Oilers rebound from a 4-1 deficit.
Penner may point to confidence being the main reason for his success -- and we're not going to argue with the man, he's 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, so it would be foolish to even try -- but even Penner knows confidence is not the only reason he's performing at a level this season that he hasn't touched since arriving in Edmonton in the summer of 2007 on a controversial $21.25 million contract.
Be it the clean slate he got from the coaching change to the Pat Quinn-Tom Renney regime or the fact that he knows Edmonton was ready to part ways with him this summer, Penner is turning in the type of performances that Oilers President Kevin Lowe thought he would see all the time after signing him as a restricted free agent three summers ago.
Through nine games, Penner, who this past summer was part of the package Edmonton would have sent back to Ottawa in exchange for Dany Heatley, has 14 points on 7 goals, 7 assists and a plus-9 rating.
Penner had 17 goals and 20 assists in 78 games last season. He didn't score his fifth goal until Nov. 29 or register his ninth point until Dec. 3.
"I guess it's just the way Pat and Tom just let me play," Penner said. "They don't get too critical. They just let me play my game. My one year in Portland (in the American Hockey League), I just played hockey and ended up getting 39 goals and 84 points. The coach there, Kevin Dineen, he just let me go play my game."
Penner didn't want to put the blame on former coach Craig MacTavish for meddling too much in his game, but he clearly feels Quinn, Renney and assistant coaches Kelly Buchberger and Wayne Fleming are handling him the right way.
"They gave me the parameters to go play and I have played pretty long in the League and been a pro for six years so they let me go out on my own to see how I do," Penner said. "They haven't really said anything because I have been playing well. Any time I do make a mistake they don't drill it into my head because they know I already made the mistake. It's a really open line of communication.
"There are certain times when you need direction and I'm not saying I don't, but it's been the right amount of direction this year."
Last season, when he was criticized by MacTavish for being out of shape -- even though Penner claims his test scores in training camp were better than the year before -- Penner said he was thinking too much and didn't even want to touch the puck.
"I thought what if I do make a mistake?" he said. "It's just going to compound a problem that was already there."
His confidence was obviously shattered.
It didn't help that 17 games into the season, when Penner had tallied just 3 goals and 1 assist, MacTavish made him a healthy scratch and told the media, "We signed him to be a top-two line player and that's kind of where it ended. The difference was we thought the contract was a starting point, and he's viewed it as a finish line."
"It was kind of like a snowball of bad energy that I couldn't stop," Penner said. "I'll take blame for it, too."
The energy has only been positive this season.
He's already bounced around lines as Quinn tries to find the right combinations, but Penner has flourished no matter where he's played or who he's been with.
"I am more tenacious on the puck and not moving around depending on who I am playing with," Penner said. "I move my feet. I'm playing my game and things are happening for me."
In regards to the perception that he's using his strength now more than he did last season, Penner agrees, "but only because I have the puck more. You use your strength when you have the puck.
"All my test scores went up so I am technically stronger from a physical standpoint and I feel stronger, but when confidence is high the game comes easier."
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org