It would be difficult to find a player who better embodies the Los Angeles Kings' rise from a Western Conference bubble team to the powerhouse they currently resemble than the guy who scored the goal that put them in their first Stanley Cup Final in 19 years, Dustin Penner.
For much of the 2011-12 season, the Kings were the NHL's lowest-scoring team, and Penner was one of their most-maligned players. A former 30-goal scorer and 60-point producer in Edmonton, he totaled just seven goals and 17 points in 65 games and gained more notoriety for an incident in which he injured himself eating pancakes than for the scoring prowess the Kings expected when they acquired him at the 2011 trade deadline.
Penner has been a force since the playoffs started, however. As the Kings have rampaged through the West, needing just 14 games to reach the Final while knocking off the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 seeds, the 6-foot-4, 242-pound winger has already surpassed his career high for a single postseason with 10 points, including three goals.
Left Wing - LAK
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 7 | PTS: 10
SOG: 27 | +/-: 5
The most recent goal set off celebrations among Kings fans in Southern California and around the country.
With the first overtime period winding down in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals in Phoenix on Tuesday, the Kings won a neutral-zone faceoff and defenseman Slava Voynov moved the puck ahead to Penner across the Coyotes' blue line. Penner left the puck for Jeff Carter, whose shot was stopped by Mike Smith, but the rebound popped into the slot where Penner fired the puck past Smith to win the game and the series.
"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."
That's happened for Penner before -- in his first two NHL seasons with Anaheim he played in 34 postseason games, registering six goals and 17 points and getting his name etched on the Cup in 2007 after the Ducks beat the Senators.
Penner wound up signing with the Oilers that following summer, and while he enjoyed a career year in 2009-10, his struggles began shortly after his arrival in Los Angeles.
"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."
Now he's beginning to reward their faith and looking like a key component of a team looking to bring the Cup home to L.A. for the first time.
"We'll probably have to get a bigger bandwagon," Penner said. "It's great for the city, great for hockey especially in Southern California. I think we have a pretty rabid fan base. I think you'll see more of that now."