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Central: Cleary's return gives Red Wings a boost

by Phil Coffey
For most of the season, the story around the Detroit Red Wings has been who is leaving the lineup with injuries. The Wings finally have some good news with Dan Cleary retuning from a separated shoulder that placed him on the club's long injury list for a dozen games.

And so far, so good. Cleary has goals in two straight games, netting one against the Kings on Jan. 7 and another against the Sharks on Jan. 9 with the opportunity for more Tuesday night on Long Island.

"It doesn't even look like he's lost anything," goalie Jimmy Howard told Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press. "He was flying out there again. He really picked that top corner there. He's got a heck of a shot, and he definitely used it to his advantage."

Cleary admits the shoulder remains a tad tender, but he tested it a bit further in a scrum with the Sharks' Devin Setoguchi and came through unscathed.

"I was a little nervous, so I just wanted to make sure I didn't do any damage to it," Cleary told St. James. "I ran him into the net and then he got upset. It was a late hit. He wasn't happy. The shoulder felt real good. I'm not hesitant, that's the one thing I'm glad about -- I can go to the areas that I have to go to."

Cleary has been one of the most inspirational players around the League. For years, he was considered a failed first-round pick of the Blackhawks in 1997, but has rejuvenated his career in Detroit these past five seasons. In 32 games this season, Cleary has 9 goals and 9 assists.

He wants to return to the form that saw him score back-to-back 20-goal seasons, but missing those dozen games may compromise that desire.

"I wanted to do better than I did last year, at least in the regular season," he said. "Hopefully the offense stays and I can play a good complete game."

Hiller haunts 'Hawks -- Anaheim's Jonas Hiller was one of the NHL's Three Stars for the week thanks to a 4-0-0 effort that included Sunday's 3-1 win against the 'Hawks at United Center in which he made 42 saves. Anaheim managed only a dozen shots in the game.

"(Hiller) didn't give up any loose stuff around the net," Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "He was smothering a lot of pucks, whether that was a lack of traffic or him being really Velcro-ish. He was effective."

"It's frustrating, considering how many shots we had on the net tonight and how hard we worked for those chances," Hawks captain Jonathan Toews told Brian Hamilton of the Chicago Tribune. "Other games, we've found ways to wear other teams down and usually by the third period, those pucks start going in for us, and they didn't tonight. It's unfortunate, but we'll regroup."

The Blackhawks will tip their cap to Hiller and move on as scoring one goal has been the exception and not the rule in Chicago. The loss to the Ducks was Chicago's first since Dec. 11 in which it had been held to a goal or less and ended a streak of nine straight games with at least 4 goals.

"It's going to happen sometimes," Toews told Hamilton. "Just leave it at that, learn from your mistakes, don't make it anything bigger than it actually is."

"I can definitely say it was one of my best games this year," Hiller said. "I saw most of the shots, but we were clean on rebounds, a lot of blocked shots. It was a big effort from everybody."

Reverse the curse -- For longer than any Blue Jacket would like to ponder, it seemed like there were no wins coming Columbus' way. But Sunday's 2-0 shutout of Dallas was the Blue Jackets' third straight win.

"Those 25 games or so, it was just a roller coaster we couldn't stop," center R.J. Umberger said. "Now we're getting back to our style of hockey."

"I don't see any reason we can't play like this for the rest of the season," coach Ken Hitchcock told Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch. "We're grinding it with really good teams now. We're more than keeping pace. We're more than holding our own. Rather than look for space, we're fighting for space. And we're creating more scoring chances than ever because of it."

Goaltender Mathieu Garon earned NHL Third Star honors for the week with the three straight wins. He allowed just 4 goals on 74 shots for the week.

"It seems like every game there's always one situation like that," Garon said. "You have to be patient and not panic, and we did a good job of that tonight. Earlier this year, we would have panicked and maybe given up more scoring chances."

Learning experience -- Timing is everything, as St. Louis Blues defenseman Roman Polak has discovered.

While the majority of Blues players are getting acquainted with new coach Davis Payne for the first time, Polak, having been assigned to the minor leagues earlier this season, has played for Payne and knows what to expect.

"The first time he walked into the dressing room, he was going around shaking guys' hands," Polak told Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "It was kind of funny because he came to me and was like, 'Hey Roman, how have you been?' I was like, 'Hey, what's up, Payner?'

"I was sitting beside Eric Brewer and Barret Jackman, and the guys were chirping me. They were like 'Oh, you're going to play a lot now.' Brewer was saying, 'I thought he was going to hug you.'"

Let's just say Payne is impressed.

"You saw the speed, you saw the power, you saw the ability to defend," Payne said. "He was as strong as anyone, his closing speed was as fast as you could get. When you start building that foundation like he did, you're able to come to the National Hockey League and adjust, with the memory in his databank that he's done this before. I think that helps a guy develop a consistent mind-set and gives him the ability to bounce back from an off performance."

On the road again
-- The Nashville Predators are hitting the road, with seven of their next eight games away from home. And coach Barry Trotz knows a special mindset will be needed to make the trip a success.

"We're going to need real good focus," Trotz told Bryan Mullen of The Tennessean. "In these last four games, we've been really good, then we've been OK. We haven't been as consistent over the three periods as we need to be. Sometimes you're home too much and sometimes you're on the road too much. Maybe we can get our focus back a little bit."

The Predators own a winning road record so far this season, 12-7-2 heading into play Monday. But the Predators, currently the seventh seed in the Western Conference, are well away that a slide now could cost them a playoff berth.

"We have to get back to good habits," goalie Pekka Rinne said. "It's good to go on road. We've been kind of playing back and forth with a homestand and then going on the road. I think it fits us fine. It's a good setup for us and hopefully we play well."

Around the Central -- Oft-injured Marian Hossa is day-to-day with the lower-body injury, but coach Joel Quenneville is hopeful it won't result in a long-term absence since he was hurt Saturday vs. the Wild, but still participated in the shootout. "I'm going to say hopeful, likely," Quenneville said of Hossa's availability for Thursday's game Columbus. Hossa missed the first 22 games of the season recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and has 11 goals and 10 assists in 23 games since returning. He had the hot hand with five goals in four games before sitting out Sunday's loss to Anaheim. … The Hawks ended a grueling stretch Sunday of 10 games in 16 days since Christmas. They play again Thursday. "This is the busiest stretch probably I've ever had to deal with," coach Joel Quenneville said. "As a team you can't get any busier than we've been and keeping yourself fresh is the whole motivation through this period." … Henrik Zetterberg also is back for the Wings against the Sharks. … Johan Franzen, recovering from major knee surgery back on Oct. told the Detroit Free Press there is a chance he could be back before the puck drops on the 2010 Winter Olympic tournament. "The way things are right now, I might," he said. "I can turn and stop, but not at full speed yet. I'm still only at 60 percent or so for speed. We'll see." … Columbus captain Rick Nash hasn't scored a goal in his past nine games. That ties the second-longest streak of his career. It's the fourth time Nash has gone nine games without a goal. His worst drought came in his rookie season of 2002-03. He scored in his NHL debut, then went the next 11 games without a goal. … Nashville will be without the services of Jason Arnott (upper body) for at least the first two games of the road trip.

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