Dustin Penner. Of course, it would be Dustin Penner. Who didn’t think it would be Dustin Penner? Dustin Penner - punch line for all the pancake jokes. Dustin Penner - trade bait at the deadline, no willing takers. Dustin Penner - free agent at the end of the season, future plans unknown. Sure. Dustin Penner. The man everybody figured would be the goal scorer who would propel the Los Angeles Kings into the Stanley Cup final for the first time in 19 years.
In this most unusual and inexplicable Stanley Cup playoff season, where the Kings have established an NHL record by winning eight games in a row on the road, it may as well have been Penner who scored the overtime winner Tuesday to eliminate the Phoenix Coyotes in five games. L.A. is in the final for the first time since 1993 and if - on that mid-winter morning at the International House of Pancakes, when Penner was serving flapjacks as part of a charitable endeavour - someone would have picked him as the player who’d get the Kings over the hump, well, that would have been an extraordinary bit of forecasting.
But it was Penner, sitting there at the podium, post-game Tuesday, that front tooth missing, grinning a broad grin, talking about how that rebound goal with 2:18 to go in the first overtime was the biggest of his career, but he hoped to top it in the Stanley Cup final. Penner was talking about the need for a bigger bandwagon, how great it was for the city and for hockey in southern California, where he’s spent most of his career, first with the Anaheim Ducks, more recently with the Kings.
It was a challenging season for Penner, on a personal level, going through a messy public divorce; on a professional level, trying to earn coach Darryl Sutter’s respect. Whenever Sutter was asked about Penner during the season, he said pretty much the same thing. The key to Penner was Penner himself. It was something the product of Winkler, Man. acknowledged too.
“I guess when you're in a hole that no one can really dig you out of except for yourself,” said Penner. “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 is one of four Kings’ players to have previously won the Stanley Cup. He did it with the 2007 Ducks, soon after arriving in the NHL on a regular basis. Now, some five years later, he actually can pass on some anecdotal advice to younger, less experienced teammates, about the process.
“Definitely there are some similarities,” said Penner. “I'm in a different place mentally. When you're in your first year, everything's new. You don't really comprehend the situation in front of you.
“Now I think I have a better general overview of what it's like, and how hard it is to get to where we are now.”
Still, Penner celebrated like a rookie, his emotions spilling over, coming as it did right after Dustin Brown’s controversial knee-on-knee hit on Michael Roszival that sent the Coyotes’ defenceman to the dressing room with a suspected charleyhorse. The Coyotes seemed to briefly lose their composure at that juncture, and defenceman Keith Yandle said his team needed to shoulder “some of the blame too” for not settling down and just keep playing.”
Coyotes’ coach Dave Tippett tried to take the high road too, although you could tell he didn’t like a lot about the officiating.
“L.A. played well,” said Tippett. “Early in the series, they played very well. Ultimately, the last two games, I thought were our best games, but they were too late. L.A. beat us. That's what should be remembered, not the refereeing.
Team captain Shane Doan was visibly upset with how the penalties were called in the series, and said: “I look back on the last two games and I still haven’t found where I got my three penalties. I have absolutely no idea where they came from or what they were calling.
“It’s hard because you don’t want to take anything away from L.A. because they played unbelievably. Give them all the credit.”
And credit Penner too, for salvaging something from what had mostly been a year from hell.