Edmonton Oilers' Dustin Penner celebrates after scoring against the Vancouver Canucks during second period NHL action in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday November 28, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
EDMONTON - After a start to this season he won't forget and a middle he would rather not remember, winger Dustin Penner is scripting a memorable end to his third season with the Edmonton Oilers.
Penner, who scored 15 goals in his first 27 games this season to garner consideration for Canada's Olympic team before going cold, stayed hot by scoring twice in a 4-1 win over the Minnesota Wild Monday, giving him a career-high 31 goals.
The 27-year-old is one of the few positives this season on a 30th-place Oilers team.
"I set out to have a better year and to have a personal best in goals, assists and points," Penner said. "It's nice. It's bittersweet, though, with the way the team is doing.
"It would mean a whole lot more to me if we were in the playoffs, or at least pushing for a spot, but it's been a tough year."
Penner, whose previous high of 29 goals came with the Anaheim Ducks in 2006-07, has put a prolonged mid-season slump behind him with seven goals in the Oilers' last 12 games as Edmonton prepares to face the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday.
With three games to play, Penner is finishing on the kind of pace he started on - a far cry from the middle of the season, when he struggled through a 25-game stretch with just four goals.
"Concentration, focus and attitude are very important things an athlete needs to have," coach Pat Quinn said. "The 82 games, to play well, you're not going to do it.
"You have to continue to try to keep your bar up high. He (Penner) set a high bar for himself. He, like others, hit some difficult times. I think it shows good on him that's he's battling back, so to speak, to levels he played at earlier in terms of production.
"That should be a victory for him in growing as a player. Right now, he's playing really well and we'd like to see, obviously, him return next season with that same sort of approach to his personal game."
Even with wide swings in his performance, Penner's 31 goals and 60 points lead the Oilers. Penner managed just 17 goals last season after scoring 23 with the Oilers in 2007-08, the first year of a four-year contract he signed after accepting a US$21.25-million offer sheet while with Anaheim.
Penner is the first Oiler to reach the 30-goal mark since Ryan Smyth scored 31 goals in 2006-07.
"He's just going out there and doing his thing," said Ryan Potulny, who has been playing centre on a line with Penner and Andrew Cogliano.
"He's controlling the game. He wants the puck. He wants it on his stick. He's tough to get off the puck when he has it. He's just going out there and demanding more out of himself."
Penner seemed to fade with increased ice time after 25 games, a stretch in which he played more than 20 minutes a game on 14 occasions. In his last dozen games he hasn't surpassed the 20-minute mark. On the season, the six-foot-four, 245-pound winger is averaging just over 18 minutes a game.
"I think, to an extent, that's fair to say," Penner said when asked if increased ice time early caused him to wear down.
"I hadn't played that much probably since my last year in the minors, and it's obviously a different pace of hockey. In correlation to last year, it was something to get used to. It wasn't a bad thing. I was just something I maybe wasn't ready for completely."
With the Oilers' struggles and the team about to miss the playoffs for the fourth straight year, Penner's satisfaction with his late-season surge has been muted, but there's no question he's turned heads down the stretch.
It's likely he'll get an opportunity to extend his season by playing for Canada at the IIHF World Championships, if he so chooses.
"You want to cut those lulls out of your season and out of your game and shorten them up as much as possible," Penner said.
"I had a fairly long one and, you know, it's up to me to figure out how to guard against that and take care of that for next year."