LOS ANGELES- Dustin Penner’s first appearance at practice Wednesday and his Kings debut Thursday both showcased the size and strength Los Angeles’ newest acquisition Penner.
He registered five hits, including a couple of booming hits in the corners, and set a total eclipse of a screen on the game’s loan goal in the Kings’ 1-0 win over Phoenix Thursday. The Winkler, Manitoba native Penner was acquired from the Edmonton Oilers for two draft picks and prospect Colten Teubert at the Feb. 28 trade deadline.
“I thought (Penner) had an impact on the game, with his size and he used it several times,” Kings Head Coach Terry Murray said. “He had some impact hits on the fore-check and the offensive zone.”
“It was a nice first game, welcome to the team,” Murray added.
Murray has been one of many around the team who have lauded Penner’s combination of size, strength and soft hands, but he doesn’t want to put the entire fate of his club in those big, soft mitts.
“I’m not looking for him to be the savior of the franchise. Don’t put things on your own shoulders,” Murray said. “We just want him to be a good player to fit in with everybody else. If there’s a high quality leadership that does come out eventually down the road as he gets more comfortable, that’s a benefit.”
Against Phoenix, the Kings got outstanding goaltending from the rookie backup Jonathan Bernier, who stopped all 25 shots he faced and recorded his second shutout of the season.
“I feel much better than the beginning of the season. I think it’s just going to be better every game. For me I just want to give a good chance for my team to win and a game this late in the season, this is huge,” Bernier said.
Bernier has negated 182 of 193 shots in his last eight games to post a .943 save percentage in that span.
“Coming through that long road trip in February, he had a couple of real big games. You go into Washington, one of the better offensive teams in the league and he does a great job,” Murray said.
Rob Scuderi contributed enormously to the defensive effort, logging a season-high 27:08 of ice time and blocking a game-high nine shots.
For Penner’s part, he got in on a nifty tic-tac-toe play between with linemates Wayne Simmonds and Anze Kopitar in the second period. It was the best unsuccessful L.A. chance apart from a Jarret Stoll shot that stopped at the goal line while the Kings lifted their sticks in premature celebration.
“(Penner’s) got that offensive side of his game where he’s got that skill and the hockey sense, too. He makes some good plays, but, on the other side of it, he can keep it very simple, just drive the net hard, and get goals that way,” said Stoll, who scored the game-winning goal and had played with Penner previously in Edmonton.
Late in the game, Los Angeles demonstrated a level of opportunism on the power play that has to be encouraging given how some of their big chances with the man advantage have gone this season.
Ryan Smyth made a heady play to gain the offensive zone and, seconds later, nearly tapped in a Kopitar pass that sailed wide of an open net. The Kings recovered the puck and shifted the attack from high to low and back to high, where Stoll’s rocket from the right point changed direction slightly en route to beating Bryzgalov. The goal not only won the game but it also broke up the Russian Bryzgalov’s bid for his second straight shutout at Staples Center.
“Any time you got a broken play on the power play the penalty kill is usually running around a bit trying to sort themselves out,” said Stoll. “I try to be ready at any time because I know (Kopitar) can fire the puck through that seam at any moment. I don’t think Bryzgalov saw it.”
Bryzgalov’s view was obscured by the 6’4”, 245-pound great wall of Manitoba, Penner, who positioned himself on the Coyotes’ doorstep. Stoll, who along with Matt Greene played in Edmonton alongside Penner, touted Penner’s ability down low in the practice before the Phoenix game.
“You get him in front of the net, too, we’ve got great guys to get in front of the net now. We always did, but we’ve added another one,” Stoll said.
The Kings killed a huge penalty late to preserve their 1-0 lead and, ultimately, the win against a Phoenix team that opened up its offense in the late stages of a tight-checking game.
“You’ve got to kill big penalties like that if you’re going to win. You’re going to have to kill some penalties late in games, in key situations during a game and we did that and we’re going to refocus for the next game,” Stoll said.
Phoenix, a system-oriented team that relies on tight defense and apt goaltending, played the game at their preferred tempo for most of the game. They blocked shots, limited opportunities and otherwise excelled, but it’s nearly impossible to win a game in which you do not score a goal (that may sound odd but it’s possible to win a 0-0 game in a shootout now). There were a meager 27 shots on net by both teams in the first 40 minutes of the game.
“We played a solid road game, I don’t think there was a ton of chances either way. But we gave ourselves a chance to win. Unfortunately we couldn’t get the one that we needed,” said Phoenix Head Coach Dave Tippett.
Phoenix’s captain Shane Doan was also encouraged by some aspects of their game but disappointed that two vital points in the airtight Pacific Division and Western Conference standings were lost in the effort.
“We had opportunities to win, had opportunities there in the game and we couldn’t find ways to score. Right now every point is so huge that you have to find ways to get one to give yourself a chance,” Doan said.
For the Kings, the auspicious beginning to Penner’s career in purple, black and silver may portend the start of a fruitful relationship. The 28-year-old Penner is under contract for next season and has a chance to become not only a big addition for the stretch run but a piece of the Kings’ core going forward.
Penner said that if his joining the L.A. Kings and their top-line tandem of Kopitar and Simmonds worked as well as he envisioned, he was expecting plenty of success in his second stint here in Southern California. Penner won a Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007.
“For having the big bodies like that who can control the puck, it just boils down to the lowest common denominator, puck protection and cycling,” said Penner. “The game can expand from there, and I think that’s what those two guys do well—cycle the puck and hold onto it.”
The bruising power forward Penner kept his house in Newport Beach, where he, his wife and their seven-year-old daughter will live during his tenure with the Kings. Leaving the Western Conference’s last-placed team, Edmonton, puts Penner back in a winning situation with the (tentatively) playoff-bound Kings.
“It’s a big difference, you can tell,” said Penner. “It’s nothing against (the Oilers). It’s just that when you get to the rink, the demeanor in the meetings, the players—there’s still some joking around, but when the puck drops, it’s down to business, as far as when the drills start, how intense each drill is, and how quickly you move from drill to drill. It’s a high-intensity practice.”
Simmonds, who was actually moved off the top line in favor of Justin Williams in the third period, expressed excitement over the addition on Penner’s first day in practice.
“He’s a big boy out there. You don’t really realize how big he is until he’s off the skates,” said Simmonds to the Los Angeles Times “He’s just a mammoth human being, but at the same time he’s got nice, soft hands and he can distribute the puck well.”
“He’s got the experience and knows what it takes. I think he’s going to be a great fit for our team,” Simmonds added.
(Parts of this report were collected in EL SEGUNDO, Calif.)