Without having been on Southern California soil for eight hours after a 10-day roadtrip, Dustin Penner arose early on the morning of Feburary 13, a scheduled off day, to take part in a blogger-sponsored charity event at a local IHOP. A healthy scratch the two games in two nights prior, he was freshly removed from the American Airlines Arena roadtrip finale in which a pair of rookie wingers seven years his junior had scored while he had watched from the pressbox.
Dubbed "Pancakes with Penner", the event toyed with the lumbering winger's January admission that he had suffered a lower back injury when he had sat down to try his wife's "delicious pancakes." It raised money in self-referential jest, allowing the Kings fans that attended a moment of laughing together with the player that was often the focus of their frustration.
He was a good sport throughout the pancake coverage and the charity event, but he had also only produced seven goals in 62 games at the time. Despite the lack of production and derision he faced, it seemed following the event that tolerance of such a frustrating player and former Cup winner had grown to a level of acceptance, even when he went scoreless in the month that followed. Fans had moved on, attention had shifted elsewhere. His limitation had become accepted as any goals and scoresheet contributions were seen as added value. It was a Post-Penner society.
Nothing new of note had happened since then, at least not through the first 9:51 of Game 1 of Los Angeles' first round matchup with Vancouver. Trailing 1-0 and driving into the offensive zone on a forecheck, Penner's stick got caught in between the legs of a Canucks skater, forcing the Kings into an important penalty kill in an effort to stem the home team's momentum.
The kill was successful, and following the early gaffe Penner provided a vintage glimpse into the player that was so effective around the net with the Anaheim Ducks in their 2007 run to the Stanley Cup. He hit the Canucks' defensemen behind their own net, he backchecked and got his stick on a puck to disrupt an ominous Chris Tanev scoring chance off an activation from the blueline.
He also scored the game-winning goal with 3:14 remaining after Mike Richards patiently carried the puck across the run of play before offering a diagonal cross-zone pass to Jeff Carter. The redirection off his skate was buried by Penner for his second career playoff goal with L.A.
"I was trying to direct it to that area, back-post somewhere," Carter told LA Kings Insider. I knew Pens was driving there, so it worked out pretty good. The stick wasn't working too well tonight, so it's a good thing the skate was."
"I was more surprised it went in the net," Penner said.
It is said that there are certain teams that benefit from a reset to a 0-0 record when the playoffs begin, but there are also those who benefit from a reset to zero points. Penner now has as many points that matter as Henrik Sedin, and should this series bend firmly in the Kings favor, any cushy images of Penner serving pancakes at an IHOP will be replaced by the gap-toothed grin he flashed after his game-winning goal on Wednesday.
"The coaching staff, they've been on us for the last two months, and rightfully so," Penner said to LA Kings insider. "They've been mad at us, because there's a lot of potential in this group. We're not surprised that we came out and got this one, but we also expect them to play a great Game 2 and we have to be prepared for that. Luongo played great for them."
One thing the Kings weren't prepared for was Vancouver's generosity. Allowing the Kings a power play tune-up with two five-on-three situations in the first period and a five minute major power play in the second, the Canucks allowed L.A. to become an opportunistic team despite Roberto Luongo's reliably excellent performance against a team he's awfully comfortable facing. His 14-9-3 record, 2.22 goals against average and .921 save percentage against the Kings are among his best career numbers against any opponent, though with 38 shots faced and backed by only two goals of support Wednesday, his window of error was practically shut.
There's certainly plenty of real estate left for Kings postseason memories, and for Penner to truly emerge as an unsung Kings playoff contributor such as Todd Elik or Warren Rychel, he's going to have to repeat the performance he gave Sunday by as many games the team plays in the playoffs.
"We earned this one," Penner said. "We can't rest on our laurels now. There's a lot more hockey to be played, and we know they're going to come out even better in the next game."
With the optimism Kings fans are enjoying after a Game 1 win, so will Penner.