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Now healthy, Cleary reverts to difference-maker for Wings

by Dan Rosen
Danny Cleary credits his health for his breakout offensive season.

Mike Babcock says Cleary's confidence is why he's again one of the most important members of Detroit's supporting cast.

Both Cleary and his coach, though, will agree that health and confidence go hand in hand, and neither cares which factor has carried more weight in Cleary's big season. All that matters is that he's one of the reasons why the Wings again look like Stanley Cup contenders.

Cleary finished the season second on the Red Wings with 26 goals and first with 8 game-winning goals. He was sixth on the team with 46 points and third with 192 shots on goal.

The goals, game-winning goals, points and shots on goal were all career-high numbers for Cleary.

"To me ego is so important in sport. Ego gives you the confidence and the belief in yourself, but the negative side of ego is unaccepting of things and that leads to things breaking down," Babcock told "That hasn't been an issue for him. It's about the team, about winning. Whether playing on the first line or third line, what leads to team success at this time of the year is it doesn't matter about your minutes, it matters about winning.

"I think he's turned himself into a real good support player."

Cleary, now 32, feels he's in the best shape of his career. He mapped out a strategic plan in the offseason to condition his body to be stronger and less prone to injury.

Last season, he was plagued by a balky left knee, caused by two tears in his meniscus, that had to be surgically repaired. Cleary feels by playing with the injury, he overcompensated and created injuries to other parts of his body, including his groin and back. Cleary was also shelved for a while with an unrelated separated shoulder, but his knee affected him all season.

"It's one thing to have a shoulder injury," Cleary told, "but for me it was my knees and it affected my ability to skate."

Cleary couldn't play the 200-foot game on which he prides himself. He couldn't keep up and his production suffered.

"Yeah, that's an understatement," said Cleary, who had 15 goals and 34 points in 64 games last season. "This year, I have taken a step physically, taken a step condition-wise and strength-wise. That goes with having knee surgery to get rid of some tears in them. I'm not floating around out there like Datsyuk, I have to be able to skate, get away from the net and get to the net."

He's been doing it all season, and his versatility has allowed Babcock to use him in a variety of ways.

Cleary can play one shift with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and the next with Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm.

"He can be on the third line and be the forechecking guy, chip it in and chase, and he can play with the top lines, where you're hanging on to the puck, making plays, going in front of the net to create traffic or battling the corner to get loose pucks," Detroit defenseman Nick Lidstrom said. "He's that player that can jump from the top line to the third line and still contribute."

Cleary is a threat on the Red Wings' power play five goals, but he's also one of their best penalty killers.

Babcock doesn't use Cleary as often in shorthanded situations because he wants him thinking offense; but the coach is comforted by having the option to put him out there. Cleary plays about a minute per game on the Wings' PK and more than 90 seconds on the power play.

"I love playing in all situations and I love being counted on," Cleary said. "I love playing a full 200-foot game and I think that's important for our team. We've got other players who do the same thing, but I really love it. I get a great sense of fulfillment being able to contribute in different ways."

The most important way this season has been in an offensive role.

"I have started to shoot the puck as much as I can," Cleary said. "I don't think you can ever shoot enough; but it's one thing to say it and it's another to do it. Everybody talks about shooting more and certain players think about making the pass first. I was in between. Now I'm all about shooting anything I can at the net and I've found it to be true for me -- the guys who score the goals have all the shots."

Babcock said Cleary is shooting more because he's confident in his shot.

"The goal scorers shoot the puck all the time and the ones who don't never score and wonder why that is," Babcock said. "There's a reason for that, and it's called confidence."

Cleary just needed to feel better physically in order to gain that confidence.

"I'm healthy, I'm confident in my ability and I'm definitely much more mature," Cleary said. "All of these different factors matter."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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