Veteran Daniel Cleary on what made the Grand Rapids Griffins champions. Ted Kulfan, The Detroit News
Grand Rapids — The smile was so wide and heartfelt, and there was a twinkle in Daniel Cleary’s eyes.
Cleary was one of the first players to raise the Calder Cup after Tuesday’s 4-3 victory by Grand Rapids over Syracuse, securing the Griffins’ second championship in five years.
Cleary, 38, didn’t play a game this season. He served mainly as an unofficial player-coach, practicing with the team, serving in a leadership role, guiding young teammates as much he could.
“What a feeling this is, I’m so happy for the boys,” Cleary said of the emotional mob scene on the ice after the game. “This is a great mix of veterans and young players that contributed all season. We had a real good, cohesive team that all pulled for each other.
“Nobody wanted to go home. Everybody wanted to win.”
Cleary has been credited with the development of forward Tyler Bertuzzi, who happened to tie Tuesday’s game in the third period and earned playoff Most Valuable Player honors after the game.
Bertuzzi and Cleary shared several hugs after the championship was won.
“He’s been here for two years and been a great mentor for a lot of guys,” Bertuzzi said. “We appreciate him being here and what he does for us.”
Cleary said after the game he’s done as a player, and is ready to pursue the rest of his hockey career — in whatever role that might be.
That his playing career ended on a championship note made it truly special.
“Awesome, unbelievable,” Cleary said. “These guys are amazing. They just won on the highest level. Being part of an American League championship, it’s a great feeling.
“Just being help the guys in whatever way, being on the ice here with them, I couldn’t be happier for the guys.”
Tyler Bertuzzi on rhe Griffins' third-period, championship-winning comeback. Ted Kulfan, The Detroit News
This was the third consecutive starring role in the playoffs for Bertuzzi, 22, who has obviously shown an ability to raise his game when the games matter most.
Bertuzzi’s 23 playoff goals are the most of any Griffins’ player in franchise history.
“He’s such an intense player,” goaltender Jared Coreau said. “Playoff hockey is way different. You don’t know until you play it. The hits are harder, the shots are faster, everything is just quicker.
“I don’t know if it’s his hockey sense or sheer will or his drive to win.”
“Just hard work,” Bertuzzi said of his playoff formula for success. “You want to win the championship. Every night you go out there and do what you have to do.”
Coreau comes through
Tuesday’s victory wasn’t smooth for Coreau, who misplayed one goal behind the net and left several juicy rebounds for Syracuse during the game.
But preserving the one-goal lead late, Coreau made several big saves to secure the championship for Grand Rapids.
“You feel some mental and physical fatigue (late in the playoffs); you have to battle,” Coreau said. “You have to battle all the way through.”
Griffins coach Todd Nelson wasn’t surprised Coreau raised his level of play with the game on the line.
“He was huge, unreal, holding down the fort at the end of the game,” Nelson said. “I’m proud of him because he proved a lot of people wrong, people that felt he couldn’t win the big games.
“Well, he won the biggest one (Tuesday).”