Brian Compton | NHL.com Staff Writer
DETROIT -- There were smiles aplenty in Newfoundland on Sunday afternoon, and with good reason.
Eleven months after be became the first native of the Canadian province to win a Stanley Cup, Dan Cleary helped his Detroit Red Wings pull to within seven wins of another championship.
Playing against the team that drafted him back in 1997, Cleary scored twice and was a plus-3 as the Red Wings beat the Chicago Blackhawks 5-2 in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final at Joe Louis Arena.
It's hard to believe this is the same player who basically received one last chance to play in the NHL when he joined the Red Wings in 2005. Since that time, his role has grown with each passing year. After signing on to be a checking forward, Cleary now finds himself skating on the same line as Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen, two of the most talented players on the planet.
But on Sunday, Cleary was Detroit's best player. With his team apparently suffering from a Round 2 hangover, Cleary erased a 1-0 deficit at 8:23 of the first period when he stripped Brent Seabrook of the puck at Detroit's blue line, raced into the Chicago zone and ripped a wrist shot from just inside the left circle that beat Nikolai Khabibulin to the far side.
"He's got a hot stick right now," Franzen said of Cleary. "He goes to the net and he deflects pucks and he shoots the puck into the back of the net. He's been great for us. He's plus-12 or something right now. That's something else."
Actually, he's now plus-13. Not bad for someone who had difficulty finding work -- at least in North America -- not too long ago.
"It's been pretty documented … looking back on it, I was real close (to being done)," Cleary said. "It was right there. If I didn't make Detroit, I don't know where I would have been. I tried to work hard and focus on making the team. Each year, my ice time has increased."
These days, coach Mike Babcock relies heavily upon Cleary to help shut down the opposition's most dangerous forwards. The line of Cleary, Zetterberg and Franzen did just that on Sunday -- they kept stud forward Patrick Kane without a single shot on goal.
The ability to keep the likes of Kane and Jonathan Toews off the scoresheet allowed Cleary and his teammates to go to work offensively. Sure enough, it was a defensive play that allowed Cleary to score his first goal.
"It's always nice to score … it gives you confidence," Cleary said. "You feel like you could skate forever out there. At the same time, I want to be good defensively. We feel as a team, defense wins. Good defense creates offense. But it's been fun. There's nothing like scoring in the playoffs."
There's also nothing like getting a second chance, which is exactly what the Red Wings' organization gave Cleary four years ago.
"He was a dynamic player as a 16-year-old in the Ontario Hockey League," Babcock said of Cleary, who scored 53 goals for the Belleville Bulls in 1995-96. "It just happened to quick for him. He wasn't able to handle it emotionally. It took him a while, and he bounced around."
Indeed he did, as Cleary -- who was selected in the first round (No. 13) by Chicago -- appeared in just 41 games during two seasons in the Windy City. By 2000, he was a full-time player with the Edmonton Oilers, but never scored more than 14 goals during his three-plus seasons there. After scoring 6 goals in 68 games for the Phoenix Coyotes in 2003-04, Cleary headed to Europe during the work stoppage. Once the NHL was back in business, Cleary needed a job.
Fortunately, Detroit was interested.
"It's been a great ride for me so far," Cleary said. "My role has expanded and my responsibilities have gotten more and more each year. I came here on a tryout, and they gave me a chance to be a player."
"He's doing lots of good things," Wings forward Marian Hossa said. "He's creating lots of space for his teammates. He's so effective right now."
Cleary's ability to play defense and his knack for the net is likely what Chicago GM Dale Tallon liked about the 30-year-old when Cleary was still a teenager. Twelve years after he was drafted by the Blackhawks, it was those two skills that helped the Wings pull within three victories of a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final. Game 2 is Tuesday night at Joe Louis Arena.
"It's nice … I wasn't in Chicago very long," Cleary said. "No hard feelings, but it's always nice to score against the team that drafted you."
Contact Brian Compton at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
With the scored tied at 1-1 in the second period, the trio of Dan Cleary, Johan Franzen and Henrik Zetterberg did tremendous work deep in Chicago's zone and managed to get the puck behind the net. Franzen took over from there, as he took the puck away from Duncan Keith and beat Nikolai Khabibulin on a wraparound at 16:38.
Henrik Zetterberg. The star center capped the scoring with an empty-net goal, was solid in the faceoff circle and had a plus-3 rating. Zetterberg also had an assist on Dan Cleary's second goal of the game.
The first two goals of Game 1 came via turnovers. Adam Burish's tally at 5:25 of the opening period came when Chris Osgood's clearing attempt landed right on Burish's stick. Burish proceeded to backhand it through Osgood's legs to give Chicago an early 1-0 lead. But Dan Cleary tied the game when he stole the puck from Brent Seabrook at the Blackhawks' blue line and beat Nikolai Khabibulin with a wrister from the left circle.
The opening three goals were unassisted -- an extreme rarity.
Adam Burish is one lucky individual. The Blackhawks' forward managed to escape serious injury in the second period when the skate of Ben Eager made contact with Burish's throat. The blade, though, only left a scrape. In a similar situation last season, former Florida Panthers forward Richard Zednik suffered a life-threatening injury, though he survived and returned to play this season.