By Dan O'Neill in Los Angeles,
Better late than never is a phrase that can be especially true in hockey, and it's true for Los Angeles Kings forward Dustin Penner.
The Kings are the talk of hockey right now, ahead 2-0 in a Western Conference semifinal with the St. Louis Blues, banging on the door of the conference finals. If you talk to people around the NHL, no one is especially surprised the eighth-seeded Kings have come so far.
That's because most people felt the Kings underachieved to become an eighth seed in the first place. Penner might represent that assessment as well as anyone.
A 32-goal scorer for Edmonton in 2009-2010, the six-foot-four, 240-pound Penner was acquired in a trade late last season. But in 19 games with Los Angeles, Penner had just two goals and four assists. In 65 regular-season games this season, he essentially pro-rated those numbers, finishing with seven goals and 10 assists and a minus-7.
But the postseason has represented a new lease on life for the Kings and Penner is among those who has taken advantage. The burly forward has two goals and four assists in seven games, to go with a plus-5 rating. He had a goal and two assists in Game 2 of the series as the Kings dispatched the Blues 5-2.
Penner, 29, readily acknowledged his struggles during the regular season, and then some.
"Obviously you need good friends and teammates," he said. "It hasn't been [just] this year. I've been up and down for a while. It's just one of those things where you have to keep on believing that there's going to be better days ahead, even if it doesn't look like it."
Penner knows what it takes to be successful in the playoffs. He won a Stanley Cup with Anaheim in 2006-07. He contributed three goals and five assists to the cause in 21 playoff games.
"Obviously you're excited to be in the playoffs and you think it's going to be this easy all the time," Penner said. "You're kind of naïve to the fact that this isn't going to be like this every year. It wasn't for me - Edmonton didn't make it for three, four years - and then this year and where I am now. I'm just trying to stay in the moment and taking the most of this opportunity."
Blues get their stud back
The Blues will have defenceman Alex Pietrangelo back in uniform for Game 3 at Staples Center tonight. Pietrangelo missed Game 2 with a knee injury, suffered in a hit by Dwight King late in the second period of Game 1.
"We were thinking about this yesterday ... the game is 1-1 and we're probably playing better than they are," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "He goes out and this whole thing changes. It's hard to believe that one player makes that big a difference. Obviously in our game, he did."
But Pietrangelo was back on the ice this morning and after the skate, Hitchcock declared his quarterback ready to go. While Pietrangelo was out, the Kings scored seven times on 27 shots over four periods.
"We're hoping that the whole stability part gets back to our team, where we've got the right players playing in the right situations," Hitchcock added. "There's going to be no tie-down on allowing him to play the minutes. He's going to have to play big minutes and he knows that. We waited until the last possible minute to where could play without any reservation. He's there now."
Dan O'Neill reports for the St. Louis-Post Dispatch. Follow him @wwdod.
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