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Monday, May 14, 2012
Kings' Dustin Penner is no joke

By Pierre LeBrun
ESPN.com

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- With a toothy grin and a bushy beard -- think Ron Burgundy during his milk binge in "Anchorman" -- Dustin Penner was yucking it up with a teammate during a break in Monday's practice.

The man is a line a minute. His sense of humor is almost unparalleled in NHL circles.

"Get him his own reality show, seriously," said good friend and teammate Matt Greene.

But these days, at least, the joke's not on him.

Penner is playing good hockey, putting up seven points (two goals, five assists) and a plus-6, while earning his keep on the second line with Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, somewhat incredibly salvaging a career that appeared headed for the exits just a few months ago.

His impact on the Kings' playoff success has been real.

"It's been really important," Kings GM Dean Lombardi told ESPN.com on Monday. "The one thing we've done the last 20 games here is our secondary scoring has come through, which we didn't have early in the year. Part of us getting it all going hasn't been one guy, it's been a group -- and a big part of that has been the secondary scoring. And so Penner, [Jarret] Stoll, [Dwight] King, [Brad] Richardson all chipping in with big goals makes a huge difference.

"And Dustin is a guy we were counting on for that. What you're also seeing now is that he's so much more often playing to his size. He's extremely difficult to play against. He's made some big plays. It's not just that he's started to contribute offensively, but here in the playoffs he's done it at critical moments."

Somewhere between admitting he injured his back eating pancakes and getting scratched by coach Darryl Sutter, the 29-year-old Penner hit rock bottom. He then picked himself off the mat, dusted himself off and rediscovered the hockey player who was a key contributor for the 2007 Anaheim Ducks Stanley Cup run.

"Obviously, my confidence was pretty low when I got scratched," Penner said Monday after practice. "It's been baby steps, you got to crawl before you can walk and walk before you can run. I just kept doing things every day to try and build a solid foundation. It started about three to four months ago, where I could just focus every day on hockey and my preparation. It didn't happen overnight. It's been a long, arduous process to get where I am now and it's going to continue to be to get to where I want to go."

What you sense, too, in the Kings' dressing room is that, to a man, his teammates are thrilled for him. It's been a rough year both on and off the ice for Penner, and the close-knit Kings team was pulling for him to figure it out.

"Big time, it's awesome," said Greene, Penner's roommate when both players were with the Edmonton Oilers. "He's a guy that has a ton of skill. He's an easy target for people to get on when he has a bad game. But when he's on, he's on. And he's a good teammate. It's good to see him have success now. He deserves it. He works hard."

Sutter has had a huge impact on Penner, challenging him to be a better player and not cut corners.

"The best way is to be honest in all that stuff, right?," Sutter said. "You know, he's a popular guy in the locker room, so that has obviously helped him. Quite honestly, as I said, I have a good relationship with him. He knows exactly where he stands, and that's good."

Off the ice, Penner refuses to use it as an excuse, but his separation and divorce from his wife this season was at times an obvious strain.

"He was a shadow of himself during the year," said Lombardi. "There was clearly something ... there were other things on his mind."

A divorce would strain anyone.

"Anybody who's been through a divorce -- 50 percent of the world knows what it's like to do that -- it's something that you have to learn, trial by fire," said Penner.

The support of the organization has been critical for him in that regard.

"Every really good team is like a family," said Penner. "The support started with Darryl and Dean and went all the way down the line right up to the trainers and equipment guys. That's a characteristic of a good team, that caring for the guy next to you."

And so Penner is back to being the player the Kings had in mind when they acquired him at the trade deadline a year and a half ago from Edmonton. And the Vancouver Canucks and St. Louis Blues had to take notice in the opening two rounds.

"He showed quickness like he had in Anaheim," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock told ESPN.com via text Monday. "He got to loose pucks and open spaces in the O-zone. Competed on pucks all the time."

Penner believes he still has more to give offensively, but that knowledge from his 2007 Cup year is coming in handy on a Kings team without too much experience in that regard.

"I talked to him the other day, you can sense he also has pride of having been there before, having won the Cup," said Lombardi. "And some of the things he was saying to me were really astute. This guy is pretty intelligent, and the way in which he analyzed what he experienced in Anaheim and how he analogized it to right now, it was something where you put your pen down and listen. It's spoken by a guy who's been there. He's making a lot of contributions. It's another reason you like guys like that, guys who have been to the finals or won, they can lay a lot of wisdom on their teammates."

Penner sees things on this year's team that he also saw on the champion Ducks.

"Yup, I definitely notice some similarities between the '07 team and this team," he said. "Not just the skill we have as far as offensively, defensively and goaltending, but I think there's a mindset that teams get as they get further along in the playoffs that you have to develop in order to be able to continue to win games in each series."

Then he paused and added: "Right now, we're walking that fine line where we're not overconfident but we're confident."

Penner's performance in these playoffs has forced Lombardi to think about something he never would have four months ago: maybe re-signing Penner.

Penner can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. A few months ago, it would have never entered Lombardi's thoughts to keep Penner. Now Lombardi has to at least entertain it.

"It's good that we have to make this decision," said Lombardi.

It's a happy Dustin Penner these days.

"It's a happy L.A. Kings," Penner responds.