EDMONTON - If Dustin Penner hadn't already put two difficult seasons behind him in his first eight games with the Edmonton Oilers this season, he did it in Thursday's 6-4 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Booed by the Oilers' faithful and benched by former coach Craig MacTavish more than once the past two seasons, Penner left the ice at Rexall Place to a standing ovation after a career-high five-point night in his debut with new linemates Sam Gagner and Ales Hemsky.
He's never played better.
"I guess it kind of mirrors my play in comparison, this year to last year," said Penner of the response of a capacity crowd. "It's day and night. It felt great yesterday and so far this season, and it felt equally the opposite way, bad, last year."
Penner, 27, scored two goals and added three assists, giving him seven goals and 14 points in nine games. Penner, Gagner and Hemsky combined for 13 points as the Oilers rallied from a 4-1 deficit.
"It's just the way he's carrying himself this year," Gagner said, asked about the difference he's seen in Penner. "He seems more focused, passionate. Obviously, when a guy like that is preparing and he's got that intensity, he's going to be a tough guy to stop. He's big and strong and he can skate. He's playing great right now."
Criticized for being out of shape, unmotivated and inconsistent under MacTavish after signing a four-year offer sheet worth US$21.25-million, Penner arrived at training camp looking like a new man after a rigorous off-season training regimen.
While the six-foot-four Penner won't say how much under his listed weight of 245 pounds he's playing at, he said his body fat percentage is lower and that he scored better in virtually every fitness test when camp opened.
"My vertical jump went up five inches," joked Penner, straight-faced. "I can probably get my elbow on the rim like Vince Carter. I'd say that 90 per cent of my scores got better. It's been like that for three years now. It just keeps getting better."
With the Oilers decimated by a flu-bug and injuries, coach Pat Quinn put Penner, Gagner and Hemsky together in practice Wednesday, then turned them loose against the Blue Jackets.
"We're here to try to make every individual better every day if we can," Quinn said. "That is our job. If we focus on that and not all the stuff that goes by, we've got a chance to help these young men and that's what it's all about."
Penner, who scored 29 goals with Anaheim in 2006-07 before dipping to 23 and 17 the past two seasons, had 11 shots to go with his five points. Hemsky had a goal and four assists. Gagner, taking over from Shawn Horcoff as first-line centre, had a goal and two assists.
"In this case, Dustin had decided he obviously didn't like what happened the last two years and he was going to try to make a change as best he could," Quinn said. "The biggest thing we're looking for is attitude. We're told you have some skill, but we're more interested in your will and your attitude, how you want to play and how you want to conduct yourself."
Penner says his resurgence is equal parts conditioning and confidence, the latter being a result of how he's been used by Quinn since the first drop of the puck this season.
"I got a chance to make a new start and make a new impression," Penner said. "It's meant a great deal to me how he (Quinn) has treated me and the whole team. Everybody has fed off the coaching staff and their energy in the dressing room. Tom (Renney) is fist-pumping on the bench during the game. A lot of it is the mental outlook, you know?
"Just getting confidence and believing in yourself. I don't know who said it, but if you don't believe in yourself, no one else will, either."
It's a slam-dunk the Calgary Flames will see more of the threesome when the Oilers visit Saturday in the latest edition of the Battle of Alberta - one that sees the teams tied atop the Northwest Division with matching 6-2-1 records.
"We're happy with the way the last game went, but we've got to find a level of consistency," said Gagner, who began the season on the fourth line.
"If we let our guard down for a second, it could go right back to the way it was. We really have to focus on continuing to find that consistency. We've got to continue to find that focus."