DETROIT – Dan Cleary was close to being an ex-NHL player when the league emerged from the lockout four years ago.
The Detroit Red Wings gave him another shot. The gritty forward took advantage, and the defending Stanley Cup champions are glad he did.
Cleary matched a playoff career high with two goals against the team that drafted him, leading the Red Wings to a 5-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Sunday.
“I came here as a tryout,” he said. “They gave me a chance to be a player.”
Game 2 is Tuesday night in Detroit.
Cleary was drafted 13th overall by the Blackhawks in 1997, but had just nine points in 41 games before being traded to Edmonton.
“I wasn’t in Chicago very long, so no hard feelings,” he joked.
Cleary signed with the Red Wings in 2005, and after a 15-point season the native of Harbour Grace, N.L., recorded 40 points each of the past three seasons to surpass his previous high of 35.
“He was a dynamic player as a 16-year-old,” Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. “It just happened too quick for him and he wasn’t able to handle it emotionally. He bounced around.
“We happened to get him at the right time. He came in with the right attitude and started working.”
In the previous round against Anaheim, Cleary scored the series-winning goal with three minutes left in Game 7 and has netted a career-high five goals this post-season. Cleary scored twice in a playoff game against the Ducks in the 2007 Western Conference final.
“He’s a dangerous guy,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said.
Cleary’s second goal came midway through the third period, 1:27 after Mikael Samuelsson’s go-ahead score for the Red Wings.
Detroit’s Chris Osgood made 30 saves, and Nikolai Khabibulin stopped 38 shots for the Blackhawks, who allowed an empty-net goal to Henrik Zetterberg.
Adam Burish gave the Blackhawks a 1-0 lead 5:25 in, but Cleary tied it a few minutes later. Johan Franzen put Detroit in front 2-1 late in the second period.
“We got a lesson,” Quenneville said. “We’ve got to be better.”
If the Blackhawks are going to have a chance, they’ll likely need young stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews to produce. They were held without a point in the opener.
Kane was shotless Sunday. Toews had three shots, and both players were on the ice for three of Detroit’s goals.
“They kind of collapsed on me,” Kane said. “So, I was trying to find the open guys a little more. I definitely have to try to find a way to get some shots.”
The Blackhawks, playing in their first conference final since 1995 against a team in its third straight, were very competitive with the Red Wings until Detroit broke it open midway through the third period.
Kris Versteeg made it 2-all early in the third on the power play. The Red Wings have given up a man-advantage goal in a franchise-record 10 straight playoff games.
“We had to keep the streak alive,” Babcock joked.
Samuelsson’s goal at 7:31 of the third put Detroit ahead and Cleary’s second goal provided a two-goal cushion.
The fourth-seeded Blackhawks fell behind in each of their six games the previous round against Vancouver, but found out it is not as easy to rally against the second-seeded and playoff-tested Red Wings.
Detroit improved to 7-0 when leading after two periods.
“It’s a race to four wins, but it’s good to get the first one,” Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom said.
Notes: Franzen has 22 goals in his last 28 post-season games, dating to last year’s Cup run, and extended his point streak to five games. … Burish was cut on the neck by the skate of teammate Ben Eager, who lost his balance on a check. “I don’t know how my head was still connected there,” Burish said. “I saw his skate. It was like he did a figure skating move. He lifted his skate up and I just watched it go over my neck.” … Detroit RW Marian Hossa missed part of the third period after colliding with Chicago LW Andrew Ladd. “It’s not too serious,” Hossa said. … The Red Wings have beaten Quenneville in each of their last four championship seasons, eliminating him three times when he led St. Louis and last year when he was on Colorado’s bench. Quenneville is from Windsor, Ont., just across the Detroit River from Joe Louis Arena. … Detroit and Chicago, both in their 83rd NHL season, are meeting for the 15th time in the playoffs with the Blackhawks holding an 8-6 advantage. The franchises have played a league-record 703 times in the regular season, including this year’s Winter Classic in which Detroit beat Chicago 6-3 at Wrigley Field.