SUN Hockey Pool

From whipping boy to top-liner

KEN WIEBE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:15 PM ET

Go ahead and take a wild guess: Who’s leading the Edmonton Oilers in scoring?

We’ll even provide a hint — if a deal for Dany Heatley this summer wasn’t squashed by the sniper’s refusal to lift his no-trade clause, this player could be toiling for the Ottawa Senators this season, along with Andrew Cogliano and Ladislav Smid.

In what has to be viewed as one of the most dramatic turnarounds in recent memory, Winkler product Dustin Penner has gone from public whipping boy to top-line player.

Thanks to a two goal, three assist night in Thursday’s 6-4 comeback win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, Penner now has seven goals, 14 points and a team-high 27 shots on goal.

Penner found himself on a line with Ales Hemsky and Sam Gagner on Thursday and the trio was nearly unstoppable, combining for 13 points, as the Oilers rallied from a 4-1 deficit for a huge win.

“We just didn’t give up,” Penner said from Calgary, where the Oilers are preparing for tonight’s Battle of Alberta clash with the Flames. “We have a lot of offensive talent and we feel like we’re never out of the game.”

Penner, who had 11 shots on goal in the game, was chosen first star and received a vociferous standing ovation when he came out.

“It was a pretty cool feeling, I wouldn’t have thought I’d ever get one like that based on the last two years and specifically, last year,” said Penner.

While it’s still early, Penner went into last night’s action fourth in scoring behind Alex Ovechkin, Anze Kopitar and Joe Thornton.

“I guess it’s kind of surreal but it’s a long season and we’ll see if I can stay up there and maintain this pace,” said Penner, a 27-year-old who is in the third season of a five-year deal that will pay him $21.25 million. “I don’t know, I’m finding myself in the right place at the time and I’m playing with some pretty good linemates. I’ve been the beneficiary of some pretty passes. Things have been working out.”

That’s an understatement.

Perhaps no Oiler has benefited from a change in coaching staff more than Penner, who is flourishing under the new regime of Pat Quinn, Tom Renney, Wayne Fleming and Kelly Buchberger.

“It’s been great,” said Penner. “The atmosphere and environment here and the way they deliver the message to the players caters to each person’s personality. It’s well-received in all aspects and it’s a different attitude.”

After putting up 29 goals and 45 points in his last season with the Ducks, Penner had 22 goals and 47 points in 2007-08 but slipped to 17 goals and 37 points in 2008-09 when he was a healthy scratch four times and routinely had his fitness level and desire questioned publicly by former head coach Craig MacTavish.

Penner got away from the firestorm and out of the public eye by spending his summer training in California and preparing for the new season.

“I didn’t really set any goals, I just wanted to play well and play like I knew that I could,” said Penner. “I worked on doing all the things I could off the ice to get me prepared for this year.”

Gagner has noticed a change in Penner’s demeanour.

“It’s just the way he’s carrying himself this year,” Gagner told The Canadian Press yesterday. “He seems more focused, passionate. Obviously, when a guy like that is preparing and he’s got that intensity, he’s going to be a tough guy to stop. He’s big and strong and he can skate. He’s playing great right now.”

“With Dustin, a lot of it is confidence,” Hemsky told Sun Media after Thursday’s game. “He’s been playing great all season, it’s nice that people are appreciating him.”


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