NEW YORK -- It wasn't too long ago New Jersey Devils forward David Clarkson was regarded as that prototypical grinder, always willing to drop the gloves and retreat into areas on the ice where only the strong survive.
That seems like eons ago right about now.
Make no mistake, while Clarkson will never shy away from body contact and, on occasion, shout a few choice words at an opponent in his face, he has also transformed into a one tough offensive hombre this season.
In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, he's become Mr. Clutch.
Clarkson scored his third game-winning playoff goal on Wednesday to help lead the Devils to a 3-2 victory over the New York Rangers in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals at Madison Square Garden.
"Mr. Clutch? I don't know about that," Clarkson said with a grin. "I'm going to stay up and down and finish my checks and those pucks just bounce off me and go in, it seems. But it's a great feeling to be able to contribute and to get a stick on a few."
Clarkson certainly got his stick on the goal that broke New York's back on Wednesday when he deflected a shot from the point by Adam Henrique 2:31 into the third period to snap a 2-2 tie. As only a player with a deft offensive touch, Clarkson raised his stick and connected with the rising shot at his chest past Henrik Lundqvist.
All three of Clarkson's postseason goals have been winners. In the conference semifinal round against the Philadelphia Flyers, he connected for the game-winners in Game 2 and Game 5.
When asked about Clarkson playoff heroics, Ilya Kovalchuk smiled before doing some quick math.
"It's nice … every goal is game-winner," Kovalchuk said. "Hopefully, he'll get seven more."
Seven more game-winners, of course, would give the Devils their fourth Stanley Cup in team history.
"Clarkie's been great all year and always seems to find that big goal, and it's fun to play with him," Henrique said. "He's always in there causing stuff and he came through big time for us."
Clarkson, who played on a line with Henrique and Alexei Ponikarovsky, finished with 15:05 of ice time, took three shots and delivered two hits.
"Personally, I knew I had to do more for my line and, as a team, we knew we had to get in front of [Lundqvist]," Clarkson said. "Whether it was front of him so he couldn't see it, or getting a stick on it, we did a lot a lot of good things down low in their zone. He's an unbelievable goalie, so it's tough to get it by him if he can see it. We did a good job with that stuff."
Through 14 playoff games, Clarkson's nine points have him tied with Zach Parise for third-most on the team, while his plus-6 rating trails only defenseman Bryce Salvador (plus-8) and Henrique (plus-7). For the record, his 20 penalty minutes also lead the team.
"David Clarkson comes off at Game 1 … I think he was real average to now outstanding [Wednesday]," Devils coach Pete DeBoer said. "He scored a big goal for us and our team has a resiliency to it. We usually respond in the right way."
Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, who made 23 saves in recording his 108th career playoff victory, knows the energy that Clarkson brings to the lineup.
"Everybody needs to play with a lot of energy, but I think Clarkie is a guy that is hard to play against when he's strong on the puck, on the boards, and when he gets himself positioned well in front of the net and be able to make some plays around the net," Brodeur said. "I thought he was a pretty dominant player in the offensive zone and we need him to be like that a little more. Every time he scores, it's a game-winner."
Clarkson, who finished third on the team with a career-high 30 goals and ranked fifth with a career-high 46 points, said the 2011-12 campaign has been extra special. He also topped the team with 138 penalty minutes.
"It's been a fun ride," he said. "I don't know if it's getting good bounces or what's happening, but it's been fun. With team success, individuals get success and that's what's happening."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter: @mike_morreale
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