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Clowe, not Big 3, may determine San Jose?s fate

by Eric Gilmore
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The Sharks had just suffered a frustrating 4-3 loss at home to Vancouver on Jan. 3, and an angry Ryane Clowe sent a message -- to his teammates.

"We can't figure it out," Clowe told reporters in the Sharks' dressing room. "We just want to cheat at times. That's how it is. (Vancouver is) not afraid to play a sound defensive game. They'll stick to it, and we have guys that want to do it occasionally. Not all the time, though, because that's hard work.

"And when you work hard, you feel it after a game. I guarantee you there's guys who don't feel that tired after that game. Just terrible."

When the Sharks begin their playoff run this week, the spotlight will shine brightest on offensive stars such as Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley, as well as goalie Antti Niemi, who helped the Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup last season.

San Jose's playoff fate, however, could well be decided by Clowe, a tough, gritty winger doing the hard, dirty work away from the spotlight's glare; fighting along the boards and creating traffic in front of the net.

The Sharks have often been criticized for lacking sufficient grit and toughness in the playoffs, but Clowe, who was named one of the team's alternate captains this season, has helped transform San Jose into a much tougher, playoff-ready team.

"Clowie has a lot of passion, and that's a quality that I think is real important," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "But over and above that, he's found a way to be consistent. He brings the physical play, he brings the puck protection. He brings all his hockey skills and uses them every night. That's what the fans see. That's what everybody sees.

"The other side of it is what happens in the locker room around his teammates. He has the ability to hold others accountable the right way because the first person he points to is himself, and that's a real good quality, something that we need. He's a team-first guy. He sticks up for his teammates. He's not worried about stats and goals and assists. He's a really, really important piece to our team."

In terms of pure numbers, Clowe is having a career year. He's one of five Sharks with at least 60 points. He has posted career highs in multiple categories, including goals and points.

But Clowe's value to the Sharks goes far beyond the stat sheet. How do you quantify toughness, resiliency and leadership, especially during the playoffs when goals become scarce and pressure soars?

"Toughness at that time of the year is blocking shots, all the play on the boards, getting the pucks, finishing hits," Clowe said. "It's putting your body on the line, sacrificing your body. Whoever wants to do it harder or longer usually ends up winning."

At 6-foot-2 and 225-pounds, Clowe is the epitome of an NHL power forward. He's big, strong and plays a physical, relentless style that commands respect from opponents and teammates alike.

"He's a guy that has the ability to put up offense but also plays very physical," Heatley said. "Real strong on the boards. Very tough. I think he can really take on anybody in the League in a fight. And then, off the ice, he's a guy that's a leader for our team. Doesn't say a lot, but when he talks, it's an important message. He's been huge for us all year."

Defenseman Dan Boyle said he has been impressed by Clowe since coming to the Sharks from Tampa Bay in a July 2008 trade. This year, though, Clowe has taken his game to an even higher level, Boyle said.

"I don't think I've seen him have a bad game, to be honest with you. He's obviously the complete player," Boyle said. "He can score, he can play physical, he can play in the offensive and defensive zone. And, he's a leader in the locker room. Guys follow him. He's a great player, and I can't imagine where we'd be without him.

"He's probably the best board player in the game today, definitely top five, that's for sure. He owns those boards and takes a lot of pride in that."

Clowe also takes pride in his role as a team leader and in his job as an alternate captain.

"I was proud to be able to play a couple years in the minors then come up and grow into a leadership role with this team," Clowe said. "I love to win. That's how I play. I just make sure if there's something I need to say, to speak my mind, and I have to be able to back it up. Words only go so far.

"I guess you can say I'm a vocal guy, but I'm not just speaking to hear myself talk. When I talk, it's something with a purpose and a meaning."

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