Ryane Clowe sparks Sharks’ offence in return from long injury layoff

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Ryane Clowe has a swollen, purplish right eyelid with a line of black stitches next to it. Underneath, his socket is yellowed and bruised.

Every time he sees it in a mirror, the San Jose Sharks forward gets a little thrill.

“After five months, it feels good to get some sort of mark on my body,” he said.

Clowe missed 67 games this season following surgery on his right knee, yet he’s been making up for lost time every day since he returned for the final week of the regular season. With two goals, one assist and a countless number of punishing hits, Clowe has been the Sharks’ best player in the first two games of their first-round series that is tied with the Calgary Flames, who host Game 3 on Sunday night.

Clowe got his two neighbouring eye injuries in the past week. After Dallas’ Stu Barnes nicked him with a high stick in the regular-season finale, he hit the boards face-first against the Flames. The bruising power forward from St. John’s, Nfld., welcomes physical play, and his ability to dish it out is a key factor in the Sharks’ hopes of avoiding their early-round flameouts in the past two playoffs.

While most opponents believe they can disrupt Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and San Jose’s talented skill players with rough tactics, Clowe is big enough to cause his own havoc. Just ask the Calgary defencemen who will be looking over their shoulders after Clowe’s punishing performances in the first two games.

“He’s a model that I can point other people towards to show what it takes at this time of the year to score,” Sharks coach Ron Wilson said. “He plays with passion. He’s got a mean streak, a physicality that he brings instantly. But for a big man, he also makes a lot of plays. He’s got skills.”

The 25-year-old Clowe has just 91 games of regular-season experience, but he has made quite an impact on the league’s second-best regular season team. Clowe had his breakout season last year, scoring 16 goals and 18 points with 78 penalty minutes in his first full NHL campaign, before adding four playoff goals.

Wilson expected Clowe to be on one of his top two lines this season, but after Clowe scored six points in the Sharks’ first 11 games, he tore several ligaments in his knee during a game at Columbus on Oct. 27. He needed major surgery requiring more than four months of recovery – and he further compounded his woes by getting arrested on suspicion of drunk driving on Dec. 24.

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But Clowe remained vigilant in his recovery, realizing he hadn’t really proved his worth in the big leagues yet.

“I tried to be around the guys as much as possible, but the toughest part was not being out on the ice for so long,” Clowe said. “When you can’t skate and play, it’s really tough. The guys keep saying this is like training camp for me now, so I’ve been really amped up.”

Clowe joined the Sharks for practices before he returned to the lineup March 30, and Wilson didn’t exactly ease his freshest legs into the lineup. Clowe got more than 15 minutes of ice time in his return against Phoenix, and he has played more than 17 1/2 minutes in both games against the Flames.

“It was almost like adding another guy at the trade deadline,” said centre Joe Pavelski, who lined up with Clowe and captain Patrick Marleau for the majority of their shifts in the first two games. “His puck skills have improved so much over the last couple of years. He makes defencemen be aware of him, so he affects everything that’s going on out there.”

Jeremy Roenick loves Clowe’s ability to stand in front of the net while taking abuse from those opposing defencemen, occupying a role the Sharks didn’t always fill during the regular season. Wilson cites traffic in front of the net as a key to disrupting Calgary goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, who has been outstanding in the series’ first two games.

Clowe scored both of the Sharks’ goals in their 3-2 loss in Game 1, and he had an assist in San Jose’s 2-0 victory in Game 2. Before the Sharks headed for Alberta, Wilson hinted that Clowe might get more time on the power play, which went 1-for-10 against Calgary on Thursday night.

“The key is definitely getting some traffic in front of the net and making things difficult for Kipper,” Clowe said. “I’m willing to do whatever they need me to do. After being out for so long, I’m ready to go all day.”