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Glendening proving he can cut it in NHL

Red Wings forward shutting down Lightning's Johnson

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

DETROIT -- Not long ago, few would have dreamed Luke Glendening would be First Star of a Stanley Cup Playoff game.

Before coach Jeff Blashill matched Glendening against Tyler Johnson in Game 3 of the Detroit Red Wings' Eastern Conference First Round series with the Tampa Bay Lightning -- watching Glendening's line hold Johnson's line to zero shots in a 2-0 victory, calling Glendening's skills a "rare combination" -- Blashill cut Glendening.

Not in the NHL.

In the American Hockey League.

Blashill couldn't wait to send him to the ECHL, where Glendening started off as the 10th forward for the Toledo Walleye, and was reluctant to bring him back up. He will be the first to admit he was wrong.

Glendening not only made himself an AHL player, he made himself an NHL player who can play a key role at the most important time of year.

"He's got an inner drive and a competitiveness that are off the charts," Blashill said. "That's why he's sitting here today."

Kris Draper, a Selke Trophy winner who serves as special assistant to Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, said Glendening, Justin Abdelkader and Riley Sheahan did to Johnson, Alex Killorn and Nikita Kucherov what Draper, Kirk Maltby and Darren McCarty used to do against top opponents as the "Grind Line" in the 1990s and 2000s.

"Luke Glendening," Draper said, "is all about determination."

Glendening was born in Grand Rapids, Mich., and grew up rooting for the Red Wings. But he seemed like a long shot to play for them or any other NHL team even when he became captain at the University of Michigan. He wasn't big. He didn't put up big numbers. He wasn't a great skater.

No NHL team drafted him.

Joe Day, who played 72 NHL games for the Hartford Whalers and New York Islanders in the 1990s and lives in Grand Rapids, worked with Glendening on his skating. A business consultant, he also put him through a test used to identify personality traits of executives and athletes. Glendening scored like a top prospect.

"Coaches want aspirins, not headaches," Day said. "He's an aspirin."

Video: MTL@DET: Glendening cleans up mess in front for goal

So Day called NHL executives, including Red Wings assistant GM Ryan Martin, who watched Glendening play in college and invited him to Red Wings development camp in the summer. Martin thought Glendening could provide depth in the minors and approached Jim Nill, then a fellow Red Wings assistant GM, now the Dallas Stars GM.

Nill agreed to sign Glendening to a two-way deal -- an AHL/ECHL two-way deal. The Red Wings ended up signing Glendening to a one-way AHL deal because Glendening received a similar offer from another NHL team, but they worried they wouldn't have the budget to carry his AHL salary in the ECHL if he were demoted.

And sure enough, he was demoted.

When Glendening arrived for AHL training camp in 2012, Blashill, then coach of Detroit's affiliate in Grand Rapids, wasn't impressed. Glendening lacked puck skills and was a drill-killer. Blashill couldn't see value in him.

"I cut Luke as quick as I could," Blashill said. "He was our first guy cut and sent down."

Glendening went to Toledo and was the deepest Walleye in the water.

"I can remember when I showed up for opening weekend," Martin said. "They can dress 10 forwards. I walk in the room, and there's Glendening in the 10 hole. I said to the coach at the time, 'I think Luke can help you. We just had him at development camp. He played in the prospect tournament. He's a pretty good player.'"

Glendening worked his way up the Toledo lineup. Still, Blashill was unimpressed. He preferred another player, Brent Raedeke.

"[Blashill] keeps saying, 'Who can help us down there?'" Martin said. "I'm saying, 'Glendening.' And he keeps saying, 'No, I want Raedeke.'"

Raedeke got called up to Grand Rapids. Martin texted Glendening's agent, telling him to be patient. Glendening continued to work.

"I'd go down. I'd see Luke. I'd say, 'Luke, you're doing everything we've asked. We haven't had any injuries [to open a spot],'" Martin said. "He'd say, 'OK.' He never said anything. He's a pro."

Finally, Glendening got called up to the AHL and worked his way up the Grand Rapids lineup. He improved his skating and faceoffs, and he showed he could be a shutdown center, not only keeping up with top players but thinking with them.

"There are very few players that are extremely hard and extremely smart," Blashill said. "That's a rare, rare … Usually as a coach, you get hard, hard players, and they're not always the smartest hockey players, or you get real smart, cerebral players that aren't always the hardest guys. He's got a rare combination of being hard and smart. It's extremely rare."

When Grand Rapids made the 2013 Calder Cup Final, they played Syracuse. When Blashill had the last change at home, he had Glendening matched up against … Tyler Johnson.

Johnson entered that series with nine goals and 17 points in 12 playoff games. He had one goal and four points in six games against Grand Rapids. Glendening had one goal and three points to help Grand Rapids win the championship.

Mike Babcock, then the Detroit coach, was watching. Glendening broke into the NHL the following season, playing 56 games with the Red Wings in 2013-14. He spent all of last season in Detroit, and when the Red Wings faced the Lightning in the first round and had the last change at home, he matched up against … Tyler Johnson.

Glendening held Johnson off the score sheet in Game 3, which the Red Wings won 3-0. He was holding him off in Game 4, which Detroit was leading 2-0. Through the second period of that game, he had the same offensive numbers Johnson did in the series: two goals.

Then in the third period, Glendening shoved Johnson from behind into the boards in the neutral zone. He and Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman took roughing penalties, and Glendening left the game with a cut on his hand sustained in the scrum.

With Glendening gone, Johnson had two goals and an assist, including the winning goal in overtime. Instead of taking a 3-1 series lead, the Red Wings found themselves tied 2-2 with the Lightning. Detroit lost the series in seven.

Here we go again: Johnson, Killorn and Kucherov combined for seven of the Lightning's eight goals to help Tampa Bay take a 2-0 series lead at home. Then the Red Wings came home, and Blashill had the last change. He put Glendening, Abdelkader and Sheahan against the Johnson line.

Glendening won faceoffs. He and his linemates controlled the puck and drew penalties. When they didn't have the puck, they pressured to get it back.

It reminded Draper of when Scotty Bowman would use the "Grind Line" against Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Mike Modano in the playoffs.

"One thing we always wanted to do was try to make those guys play in their own end," Draper said. "Star players don't want to play in their own end. They want to get the puck. They want to get going. And that's when we just tried to cycle the puck, hold onto it, make those guys play defense. I'd say last night that's what the Johnson line had to do moreso than certainly in the first two games.

"If you can get them to play in their own end for 20, 25 seconds of a shift, now they've got to come 200 feet to your net. Now you've kind of taken a lot out of them for that shift. So I know that was always our mentality when we played against the other team's top line. Make them play in their own end. You get a chance to finish the check, finish the check. If there's a scrum, grab them, try to frustrate them, all those kind of things.

"The challenge and the beauty of it is, now you've got to do it again."

That's all Glendening will talk about. He won't gloat about any of this or act like he has accomplished anything. It's one game, he will say. The Red Wings have to be better next game, he will say. That's how he got here.

He's an aspirin, not a headache.

"I think you have to prove yourself to every coach you play for," Glendening said. "I think at different points in your career, you have to prove that you're worth being on the team here, you're worth your while, I guess."

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