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X-Factor: Clarkson brings grinding, tenacious style

by David Kalan

As the New Jersey Devils eliminated the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday, the goal that clinched their Game 5 win was emblematic of the series as a whole.

As Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov looked to play the puck from his crease with 7:15 to go in the first period, he was frozen by a New Jersey forechecker and hastily attempted a pass that bounced off the forechecker's stick and ended up in the net.

The Devils' voracious forecheck is the reason they didn't just defeat the Flyers, but did so convincingly, and few have done it better than David Clarkson, the man on the spot in that exact moment. That ability to apply pressure and knack for producing offensively is what makes Clarkson the X-Factor for the Devils as they go for their first Stanley Cup Final berth in nine years.

That Game 5 winner wasn't the first time Clarkson came up big against the Flyers. His game-winner in Game 2, in which he beat defenseman Nicklas Grossmann to a rebound before doing a Superman dive on top of the Philadelphia net, was also a product of his aggressive style of play. Clarkson's dedication to the forecheck not only applies pressure on the opposition's top forwards and defensemen, it also puts him in position to pick up loose pucks and score goals as a result of his consistent, hard play toward the net.

David Clarkson
David Clarkson
Right Wing - NJD
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 6 | PTS: 8
SOG: 28 | +/-: 6
While much of Clarkson's game was once built around being a checker and a pest, he has developed into a grinder who can score, tallying what might have been the quietest 30 goals in the League this season. With a pair of game-winners under his belt in New Jersey's series against Philadelphia, his production may not be so quiet anymore, but if he continues along this pace the Devils won't mind, particularly considering who they're facing next.

The Rangers, too, are a team that lives and dies by its forecheck, and New Jersey will need to be equal to the task in what could be a seven-game battle of attrition. Clarkson's aggressive checking style -- and his ability to create scoring chances off of it -- will be pivotal in putting the clamps on Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik.

Through 12 playoff games, Clarkson's eight points have him tied with Zach Parise for third-most on the team, while his plus-6 rating trails only defenseman Bryce Salvador. Clarkson is starting to show shades of Claude Lemieux in 1995, who was known for his grinding play for New Jersey before his 16 points in 20 games earned him the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Devils won their first Cup. Lemieux's defense didn't suffer that postseason -- he put up a plus-12 rating, his best playoff mark in a career that included four Stanley Cup championships.

To this point Clarkson has emulated that style of play, and its dividends have become more and more obvious. If anyone can recognize the value Clarkson brings to a playoff team, it's Devils coach Pete DeBoer. Before Clarkson was an undrafted free agent he won a Memorial Cup for DeBoer's Kitchener Rangers in 2003. If Clarkson performs in the conference finals like he did against Florida and Philadelphia, he and DeBoer will get a shot at their second trophy together, but this time the Cup will be a little bigger.

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