Cleary's spin-o-rama goal late in the first period proved to be the winner in Game 3 of the Wings' Western Conference Quarterfinal series against Columbus as the Red Wings disappointed a sellout crowd with a 4-1 victory at Nationwide Arena.
After the Wings successfully killed the eighth straight power-play attempt by Columbus in this series, Cleary gave the Red Wings a 2-0 lead off a splendid 360-move in the slot with just 45.1 seconds remaining in the first period. He gathered in an attempted shot by Johan Franzen in his midsection, controlled and spun around while falling to his knees, but not before the puck slid by Columbus rookie goalie Steve Mason.
"The puck caught me in the midsection -- it came off me pretty good -- and I just wanted to get it on net," Cleary said.
It was the second timely goal of the period by the Wings, who quieted the sellout crowd at the first home playoff game in Blue Jackets history when Tomas Holmstrom scored 1:07 after the opening faceoff.
"Both first-period goals were timely, because it turned out to be a great start and then we deflated them scoring late like that," Cleary said. "I thought all throughout the game we played great defensively while getting our opportunities on (Steve) Mason."
In addition to his offensive flair, Cleary and linemates Franzen and Henrik Zetterberg were also assigned to shut down Columbus' top line of Rick Nash, Kristian Huselius and Antoine Vermette. That trio combined for just one point -- an assist by Nash in the third.
"(Zetterberg) is exceptional and Franzen has come into his own as a huge power forward," Cleary said. "I think we've drawn Nash every game and he's not easy to contain, so not only are you trying to contain him, but tonight, we found a way offensively to help out."
During last year's Stanley Cup run, Cleary posted 2 goals and 3 points in 22 games. He has already equaled that point total (1 goal, 2 assists) in three postseason games this year.
"The experience of going to the playoffs last year and winning really helped," Cleary said. "Anytime you get that type of experience, it helps because I can always draw back on those experiences."
Zetterberg can sense the confidence in Cleary's game.
"He's working really hard in front of the net, creating a lot space and chances for me and Mule," Zetterberg said. "It's nice to see him score a goal because he deserves it. He's maybe getting a little more opportunity this year; he plays on an offensive line with a chance to play in the other end a little more. He's a great player and he's made the most of his opportunity."
Wings coach Mike Babcock agrees.
"He's a big, heavy body who has the skill level and hockey sense to execute," Babcock said. "His net presence on the second goal was important. He can play against the best players and still generate offense."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.