Friday, June 8, 2012

Clarkson: A Big Game, Big Goal Scorer

By Larry Wigge

David Clarkson is a competitor. A battler. He agonizes over each potential goal-scoring chance that he failed to score on. There is no quit in him.

After the first three games of the Stanley Cup Finals ... he was held off the scoresheet, even though had some of the New Jersey Devils best chances. New Jersey Devils coach Peter DeBoer knew Clarkson had a lot left in him. He kept putting him out there.

"I thought in Game 1 he was arguably our best forward," DeBoer said. "I thought he could've had two or three goals. David's a guy that's on the verge of breaking out.

"He's a big game, big goal scorer."

Vindication for Clarkson, the undrafted free agent, who was born in Toronto, is only natural coming from DeBoer.

DeBoer is proud of Clarkson and his accomplishments as an NHLer. Clarkson and DeBoer won together in junior, including a Memorial Cup championship with the 2002-03 Kitchener Rangers.

It's DeBoer's first year as the Devils coach ... and they're winning again.

Clarkson had a quantum leap in goals this season, going from 12 last season to a career-high 30 goals during the regular season. David has converted the game-winning goal in Game 2 and 5 against Philadelphia in the second round and in Game 2 against the New York Rangers in the Conference Finals, giving him three goals and nine assists in 21 playoff games.

In Game 4 of the Cup finals, David Clarkson picked up a turnover at center ice, he quickly turned into transition mode. He skated into the offensive zone and quickly sent a cross-ice pass to Henrique, who corralled the puck and flipped a wrist shot past Jonathan Quick's glove side.

"Clarkie had it at the blue line and I was hoping he saw me," Henrique said. "He made a great pass. It came off my skate pretty good and was right on the tape ..."

Henrique knew how quickly the Los Angeles goaltender moved from side to side, so he made a perfect shot.

"I knew Quick was going to have to come a long way ... to make the save if I was going to get up short-sided."

The goal broke a 1-1 tie with 4:31 left in the third period to stave off elimination for a 3-1 victory over the Los Angeles Kings. 

DeBoer knew how much Clarkson wanted to get back on target. He knew him better than his own son.

"Personally, I would've liked to have a couple of chances back in Game 1," Clarkson replied. "This is a time of the season when you don't get too many of those chances. Hopefully they keep coming ... and I'll bear down a little more."

There is more to it. Clarkson, in fact, credits coach Peter DeBoer with talking him out of quitting hockey, when David was ready to hang up his hockey skates at the age of 18.

Clarkson did quit ... in fact.

Devastated by the loss of two grandparents within three months, Clarkson lost his passion for the game and was set to walk away from his junior career with Kitchener. It was his coach at the time, DeBoer, who convinced him to return.

"I lost two of my grandparents in one year. I lost them both within three months. I was a young kid, 17- 18-years-old, and it was tough to swallow," Clarkson recalled. "He convinced me to come back. I ... wasn't sure I wanted to play after that."

Both of his parents worked when he was growing up. Thus, his grandparents were like second parents to him. Neither of them was ill ... it was ...

His grandmother woke up one morning with a cough and died of cancer a month later of complications from the cough. His grandfather had a seizure in a washroom and wasn't found until three days later.

Those were both devastating ... especially to a young kid. He wanted to quit living.

Said DeBoer, "I'm sure he'll tell you he's been good for me and saved my career and I'll probably tell you I saved his."

But DeBoer must see a different player other than the 28-year-old Clarkson from his junior days?

"He's more mature," the Devils coach said. "He's found his identity and role as a player. In Kitchener, he did a lot more fighting, a lot like he did early in his NHL career.

"He's established to everybody in the league what he is now and he's a valuable guy on the ice. There's only a handful of guys in the league -- Milan Lucic, James Neal, Scott Hartnell, David Backes, Ryan Malone, Clarkson, those type of players that can score the type of goals they score and are willing to do the dirty work, too."

Clarkson listens and learns from DeBoer, whether it's life traits or just hockey. He's always been there for me.

At the start of this season, the coach let him know he expected more from him. He wanted me to be more of an all-round player, not just a tough guy. The goals came in bunches for Clarkson.

"He put me in the sort of role I play now and that helped me find the way I needed to play," Clarkson recalled. "He's still hard on me when he I need it. To have a coach like that, who believes in you, is something you don't mind a bit.

"I've asked him to play whistle to whistle and kind of get away from the agitation role that is typically part of his game, because we don't really need it right now."

Clarkson's previous best goal-scoring season had been 17 in 2008-09. He found out he could be a reliable hockey player, one the team could count on. Not just a thug.

"We want to play five-on-five," said DeBoer. "We've been one of the best five-on-five teams, I think, in the league the last 6-8 weeks. That's our game."

The success David Clarkson is having this season is more a playing whistle to whistle, something a lot of NHL players have had success with -- most notably Vancouver's Ryan Kesler.

A player listening and learning from his coach. That in itself is a given. But for DeBoer and Clarkson it's always been a gift.

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