EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Kings forward Dustin Penner feels like he's been taking one long breath in this postseason, only finally there is fresh air coming into his lungs, spreading good will and good fortune throughout his body.
He doesn't want it to stop. He's challenging himself to make sure it doesn't.
"Nobody has had a tougher past 12 months than Dustin, no question," Kings coach Darryl Sutter told NHL.com. "It has been a rough road for him and this is just something that is fresh and it feels new for him. And, it's good."
Penner's play during the regular season was, to put it mildly, subpar. He was so bad in February that the Kings had to bring Dwight King and Jordan Nolan up from Manchester of the American Hockey League to play ahead of Penner, who finished the regular season with 17 points in 65 games.
To make matters worse, Penner is also going through a divorce; one he doesn't want to blame for his bad play in the regular season but at least concedes can be linked to it.
And, adding injury plus insult, not to mention embarrassment, was that whole pancake saga back in January, when he had to miss time because his back seized up as he reached for a stack of pancakes that his now ex-wife made for him. Penner already had a reputation of being overweight and out of shape -- the pancake saga didn't help.
So, yeah, until the playoffs began the 2011-12 season had been one giant train wreck for the burly Penner, who has shown flashes of being a world-class power forward since he won the Stanley Cup with Anaheim in 2007, but has never been able to play with the consistent drive necessary to be a reliable player.
He might be changing opinions now. He might finally have discovered his happy medium.
Penner has somewhat surprisingly turned into one of the Kings most reliable forwards in the postseason and he heads into Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals at Jobing.com Arena (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN, RDS) with seven points in nine games. He had five points and was a plus-5 in the four-game series sweep of the Blues in the Western Conference Semifinals.
By comparison, Penner had seven points in his last 31 regular season games. He credits Sutter for being a rock for him to lean on, and for pushing him in this postseason to finally become the player he was during Anaheim's run to the Stanley Cup in 2007.
"Darryl has been instrumental in helping me," he told NHL.com. "We have a good relationship. It's business at the rink, but when you're not focused on hockey it's more personal. He's a great coach and a better person. He's a western guy, a prairie farmer, and geographic location has its own characteristics and traits. It's just one of those things; we get along."
All that means Sutter knows many of the intimate details about Penner's marriage falling apart, far more than what has shown up publicly, starting with a TMZ report on Feb. 29 that left Penner flabbergasted.
"That's not something for a public format. It's not fair to anyone, to her or to me," Penner said. "People like that gossip. The world is full of it. I had an idea of where I stood when I saw it on TMZ. I was surprised. I was like, 'Are you sure that is me?' I didn't think it was news. I didn't think anybody would care or should care.
"There were comments on the Internet and I was like, 'People really don't have better things to do with their time.' "
Without placing the blame for his subpar regular season on his failing marriage, Penner did admit it has had a negative effect on him.
"Anybody that has been through a divorce, you can't gain perspective on it until time has passed and I'm able to understand it," he said. "Anybody that has been through a marriage and went through the publicity that I went through would be lying if they said it didn't affect them.
"It changes your life."
But has it in some way helped him change his game on the ice?
Penner said no. Instead, he said it was the faith that Sutter showed in him, especially heading into the Western Conference Semifinals.
"He had to move up and play in the top six; it's the only chance we had of beating St. Louis," Sutter said. "We had five guys and they had six, so we needed another guy. Somebody had to come out of that group and go into that. It was easy to say, 'Dustin, you've got to go be the guy,' because it was unfair to put another guy in because they couldn't match up. He is the only guy that had the experience of matching up."
Did Sutter have any reservations about putting Penner in such an important role, on a line with Mike Richards and Jeff Carter?
"Totally didn't," he said. "All I do is go game-by-game. Why not? Every round is about that. It's not always about the top players, it's about unsung heroes. And, he's been a difference maker. It only gets tougher now."
Penner knows that. He's taking it as a challenge.
"I've had my fair share of negative publicity, so it's nice to be on the other side of it," he said. "But, that can disappear in a heartbeat in this business so you have that extra pressure to perform. You know, it helped to join Twitter. When you see the support from the people that you want to see you succeed, a part of you wants to succeed for them because it adds joy to their life."
For the first time in a long time, Penner finally has some joy in his, too.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl