Last season, Cleary was in the background as Detroit bulled its way to the Stanley Cup. He scored just three points in 22 games, but performed so many of the "little” tasks that helped make the Wings so difficult to play against.
Today, he is up front in Detroit's bid to repeat, stepping to the fore as the Wings deal with a wave of injuries -- including forwards Pavel Datsyuk
and Kris Draper, who each missed Saturday's Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals, a 3-1 win by Detroit against Pittsburgh
In 16 postseason games this spring, Cleary has 8 goals and 14 points; third on the team as it battles the Penguins in a rematch of last year's finals.
"'Clears' was given opportunities and made the most of it," Draper said. "He has just turned himself into a very reliable, solid, two-way hockey player. And, now, he has a knack for scoring big goals for our team. You do that at playoff time; it's good."
Everything seems to be good for Cleary these days.
The hockey wilderness -- basically the first eight years after he was drafted in the first round by Chicago in 1997 -- that had been his home for so long is now a thing of the past, washed away by the magical elixir that poured forth from the Stanley Cup last June.
"He's found a home here in Detroit, he loves being a part of the Detroit Red Wings," Draper says.
And, the Red Wings love having him as a part of their family -- on and off the ice.
Off the ice, he is the humble, down-home guy that his teammates gravitate toward. On the ice, he is a jack of all trades. He can score goals, as he has shown this postseason, or he can put the clamps on opposing goal-scorers -- a job that he has handled in each of the past two rounds.
In the Western Conference finals, Detroit coach Mike Babcock decided Cleary was the answer to stopping young gun Patrick Kane, so, he moved Cleary throughout his forward lines, making sure he got Cleary out against Kane whenever possible, even on the road, where matching up is much more difficult.
Now, in the Stanley Cup finals, Cleary has been handed the task of slowing down Sidney Crosby. In Saturday's Game 1, Babcock went power against power, putting Cleary on the top line -- with Henrik Zetterberg
and Johan Franzen
-- and using that unit against the Crosby line.
His confidence has obviously really grown, and he's earned the right to be talked about. - Wings coach Mike Babcock
Cleary clearly won the Game 1 battle, going a plus-1 with five hits and two takeaways. Crosby, meanwhile, was held without a point for just the third time in 18 playoff games and finished a minus-1.
"When you are playing against guys with that caliber of offense, it's a great measuring stick for you," Cleary says.
But Babcock says that Cleary has already proved his worth to the Red Wings. Cleary's willingness to assume different duties and remain a productive member of the team makes him one of the most valuable -- if underrated -- forwards during this most recent run of excellence.
The coach is ecstatic that Cleary has produced the kind of dramatics that merit him being the center of attention. Last year, Cleary was a role player on a grinding line with Draper and the since-retired Dallas Drake that rarely saw a headline, unless it was in reference to his quest to become the first Newfoundlander to win the Stanley Cup. Now, he is making headlines almost daily with his on-ice contributions.
"Well, last year he played the majority of the time with 'Drapes' and Dallas Drake, so the chance to generate offense and for people to talk about them were slim," Babcock said. "Yet they ran the crap out of people. I like that, too.
"He's a very versatile guy. (Against) Chicago, I played him on a different line basically every game. Whatever line he was on, he was successful. We wanted a matchup against Kane, and just made it easier for us. His confidence has obviously really grown, and he's earned the right to be talked about."
His teammates also love that the mild-mannered Cleary has taken center stage during this playoff run.
"His versatility is what has allowed him to become a very important part of this team," defenseman Brad Stuart
said. "You can put him on the first line and he doesn't look out of place. You can put him
on the third line and he'll still contribute. That's the type of player you need; somebody that can move up and down the lineup. He can be slotted in anywhere."
For Cleary, it is all just about playing the game he has loved since a childhood in Newfoundland that saw him regularly make round trips of three hours just to practice. But he admits that he is playing the game with a lot more swagger this spring than he ever has in his life.
How could he not after reaching the summit of his profession?
"When you win the Stanley Cup, it's a great little feather in your cap, but it also gives you confidence, your belief in the ability to win," Cleary said. "It's given me a lot of confidence."