DETROIT -- Daniel Cleary drives people crazy. He gets under their skin and he rattles them and he won't just go away.
And this is just how his own teammates feel about him.
To their delight, and the satisfaction of the Detroit Red Wings' front office, Cleary is showing himself in full-pest mode against the Chicago Blackhawks, whom the Wings take on tonight at Joe Louis Arena holding a 2-1 series lead. Cleary is making new friends against the Blackhawks, regularly caught up in scuffles with Bryan Bickell and Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane, adding to a playoff performance that also shows six points in 10 games dating back through the Anaheim series.
"He's not quite as heavy as he used to be, but in this playoff he's gotten back to Danny Cleary of old, really skating," coach Mike Babcock said Wednesday. "He's doing a real good job right now. He's playing in our top two lines, plays on the power play. He's been real effective, and he's a real good person."
The last time Cleary was this effective in the playoffs, the Wings went all the way to the 2009 Stanley Cup final.
He's 34 now and has been through numerous knee surgeries and some back pain, but he's aggravating and he's productive and he's having a blast.
"Certainly, a hatred is brewing between our two clubs," Cleary said, smiling. "It's only going to get more intense as we get going. I'm sure there are some guys who aren't happy out there. You're fighting for every inch. Sometimes it boils over."
It boils over in his own dressing room, too. Jimmy Howard described Cleary as, "loud, opinionated and confident."
Also: Effective. "He's hardworking, goes out there and skates, he's huge for us."
There's a running joke among teammates that Cleary is the smartest guy in the room. "I think he thinks he's the smartest one, anyway," Niklas Kronwall said, laughing. "I wouldn't put him up there at the top."
Cleary is a talker, and it's hard for him to hide that he's well-read and watches a lot of TV and knows just a little about everything. He's also a talker, before games, and during, and again this is where his effectiveness shows. "He's got elite hockey sense and he's a great competitor," Babcock said. "He's in our leadership group here. He's demanding of our guys, on the ice, on the bench, in the room, and doesn't mind telling people. I think he's a huge part of our hockey club that way."
Brendan Smith remembers the first time he encountered Cleary, when it was all silent treatment.
"He didn't say anything," Smith said. "You've got to earn your stripes with him." Once you do, there's nothing Cleary wouldn't do to help. "He's a good leader in this dressing room," Damien Brunner said. "He shows the younger guys where to go. I learn a lot from him."
Brunner sits next to Cleary, who has Joakim Andersson on the other side. Andersson, Cleary said, "is too nice a guy," to poke fun at. Brunner is fair game. Brunner understands this about Cleary, and finds it invigorating. "He's one of the funniest guys I've ever met," Brunner said. "When he makes a joke, he's got this good sense of humour -- like, straight-up, and dark sometimes."
Cleary, 34, has got a good handle on his current on-ice role, which is to create room and retrieve the puck for linemates Henrik Zetterberg and Valtteri Filppula, and to be in front of the net. Zetterberg, who predates Cleary's 2005 arrival in Detroit, no longer falls for anything Cleary says off the ice, because, "once you get to know him, you figure out his personality. He is up there in confidence, I will say that."
It's important for the Wings that Cleary play well, but it's good for Cleary, too. He's in a contract year, and this is the sort of playoff performance that leads to an extension. The Wings have young guys coming aboard next season, but a hard-working veteran with Cleary's leadership is always wanted. For Cleary, it's hard to think of going anywhere else. He began his NHL career in 1997 with the Blackhawks, who picked him 13th overall in that year's draft, but lasted just more than a season there before bouncing around to Edmonton and Phoenix. He joined the Wings on a tryout coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, and earned a spot that, eight years later, he doesn't want to relinquish.
"You want to play as hard as you can, show them what you can do," Cleary said. "I love Detroit. They gave me an opportunity to stay in the league and I've always really had that in the back of my mind. The relationship is a good one."
-- Detroit Free Press