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Penner making waves with Mighty Ducks

by Paul Friesen | Winnipeg Sun

Hands up: anybody out there pick Dustin Penner in their NHL playoff pool?

Other than his dad, that is?

Didn’t think so.

By the end of this thing, you may wish you had.

In fact, Penner, the 6-foot-4, 245-pounder from Winkler, Man., is already a better pick than Steve Yzerman, Mike Modano, Jaromir Jagr and Simon Gagne, just to name a few.

With six points in his last three games, Penner is threatening to become this year’s John Druce, a guy who comes out of nowhere to put up big points in the Stanley Cup chase.

It’s just the latest chapter in one of the best hockey stories to come out of this province in years.

"It’s been awesome," Penner was saying yesterday from Anaheim, where his Mighty Ducks are basking in the glow of being the first team to reach the Stanley Cup semifinals. "It’s something you don’t always get to do in life. It’s pretty special."

Penner got an idea of how special it is after the Ducks swept Colorado from the second round.

Shaking hands with the Avalanche after Game 4, he witnessed a memorable exchange between his teammate, Teemu Selanne, and Colorado captain Joe Sakic.

"Sakic was shaking hands with Teemu in front of me," Penner recalled. "And said, ‘Go get your ring, Teemu.’ It kind of hits you when you hear stuff like that. When you’re in the moment, in the game, you don’t think of it too much. But after it’s all said and done, we’re all the same type of guys going for the same goal."

That Penner is just eight wins away from a Stanley Cup championship defies all the odds. After all, this guy couldn’t crack a Manitoba Junior Hockey League roster as a teenager.

After a stint at a no-name college in North Dakota, he blossomed into a star at the University of Maine, and suddenly NHL teams were calling.

A couple of weeks ago, Penner was putting the finishing touches on a big AHL season when he was called up to Anaheim as an injury replacement.

He played the last four games in a first-round series win over Calgary, but didn’t record a point.

Then came the first game against Colorado, his most shaky effort of the playoffs, and what turned out to be a critical meeting with Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle.

"It wasn’t a rant-and-rave," Penner began. "And it wasn’t coffee talk, either. It was time to either put up or shut up, type of thing. It sunk in, or hit home, whatever you want to say.

"You could say it’s been a bit of a turning point for me."

The result: a goal and five assists in three games.

Since that chat with Carlyle, Penner goes into games like a golfer with a swing thought. Only instead of repeating something about his shoulder turn or weight transfer, he’s reminding himself to move the puck, move his feet and go to the net.

Penner says it’s all about keeping things simple, and staying focused.

"That was the one thing that was maybe the key to open up this offensive game I’ve been playing," Penner said. "In the AHL I was a big fish in a small pond, and now I’m a small fish in a big pond, and I’m trying to get around that."

He hasn’t had much trouble getting around southern California.

With all this time waiting for the winner of the San Jose/Edmonton series, the Ducks look more like a team that’s been eliminated than one in the conference final: Penner and some teammates went golfing Saturday, then took in the L.A. Clippers-Phoenix Suns NBA playoff game Sunday.

They could have as much as nine days between games.

And when they do start again, Penner will face another hurdle. One he’s created on his own.

"The only problem with playing the way I have is now it’s expected," he said. "And that’s a challenge in itself for me."

Anybody for a two-round office pool?

Paul Friesen is a columnist for the Winnipeg Sun and SLAM! Sports