It was the fourth loss in a row for the Los Angeles Kings, and the eighth defeat in 10 contests of what was becoming an increasingly disappointing season that had begun with high hopes. For Penner, it was a low point in a season that wasn’t lacking for them.
He was a healthy scratch for the fifth time in six contests. A guy who was expected to be a key contributor for a team considered in the preseason to be a Stanley Cup contender was an expensive disappointment.
A lot can change in three months.
Penner not only helped the Kings into the playoffs, but he’s been one of the team’s top players during their impressive postseason run. He authored another amazing tale in his story of redemption when he scored the series-winning goal in overtime Tuesday night as the Kings defeated the Phoenix Coyotes 4-3 in Game 5 to capture the Western Conference Finals and earn a berth in the Stanley Cup Final.
"It's the biggest goal of my career thus far," Penner said. "Hopefully there's a couple more waiting in the Final. I was at the right place at the right time."
After returning to the lineup, Penner had to earn more playing time from coach Darryl Sutter. He had only two goals and four points in the final six weeks of the regular season, but at least he was back as a regular.
Penner scored in the Kings' playoff opener against Vancouver, but his postseason really started to take off in the second round when Sutter put him back on one of the top lines. Sutter liked Penner’s postseason experience and felt his team needed two big lines to matchup with the St. Louis Blues.
Playing with Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, Penner began to look like the power forward he was in his days with the Anaheim Ducks. He’s been a handful in the corners and around the net, creating chances for himself and his linemates.
He’s also made some important plays at the defensive end -- and he's played with greater consistency than he did during a regular season in which he finished with only seven goals and 17 points in 65 games.
"I guess when you're in a hole that no one can really dig you out of except for yourself," Penner said. "I put that pressure and that stress on myself to get me out of where I was. I had great support from teammates, family, friends, the organization as a whole."
Penner’s line got off to a strong start in Game 4, but like the rest of the team faded a bit after the opening 10 minutes or so. As Game 5 wore on, that trio seemed to get stronger, and Penner had the primary assist on Richards’ goal that gave the Kings a 3-2 lead late in the second period.
"I guess when you're in a hole that no one can really dig you out of except for yourself. I put that pressure and that stress on myself to get me out of where I was. I had great support from teammates, family, friends, the organization as a whole." -- Kings forward Dustin Penner
"He had a journey tonight," Sutter said after the contest when asked about Penner’s season. "I stuck with him. He struggled early in the game -- stuck with him."
It was a good thing he did. Penner now has three goals and 10 points in 14 postseason games, and he’s a big part of the depth scoring that has helped the Kings roll over the top three seeds in the West.
Seconds after a big hit by captain Dustin Brown on defenseman Michal Rozsival a second after an offside call caused a huge stir for the Coyotes and their fans, Penner created a huge celebration for the Kings. Penner sent a pass to Carter and was in the slot waiting for a rebound when the puck came to him. He put a shot over Mike Smith for the win.
"Elation," Penner said of his reaction to the goal. "You know, it was after that questionable play in the neutral zone. We had a draw just off center off the blue line. Richards [won it on a] second or third effort. Went back to Slava [Voynov], Slava threw a bouncer off the boards. I watched it hop a couple times, ended up I think it was over [defenseman Keith] Yandle's stick. I retrieved it, threw it to Carter coming down the right side. He threw it on the net. Bounced down a few more times. I just followed the bouncing puck until it was in a good enough position for me to shoot it."