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Overshadowed Tim Gleason Worthy Of Praise

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The NHL Network.

TSN.

The News & Observer.

ESPN.

I could go on. Countless publications, Web sites and TV stations identified the big heroes from Carolina's series victory over the New Jersey Devils.

They pointed to Eric Staal and his improbable Game 7 game-winning goal. Cam Ward matching — and again beating — Martin Brodeur. Jussi Jokinen's second heroic tally of the series. Many mentioned Ray Whitney as the catalyst for Staal's dominance, while others focused on the Joni Pitkanen-Jokinen Finnish connection.

Many of these players have faced their share of criticism this season.

Remember how Staal only scores goals against bad teams?

Or how you can't win with Pitkanen?

How about The Hockey News ranking Ward 21st among NHL goalies in their annual "The Goalie Issue" in March? He ranked behind guys like Ty Conklin, Ilya Bryzgalov, Scott Clemmensen, plus two goalies from both Florida and Boston.

Nos. 13 and 36 were once thrown away by their teams: Whitney was bought out by Detroit in 2005, while in February the Lightning shipped Jokinen to Raleigh for what amounted to salary dumps.

We know what Rodney Dangerfield would say about all this.

But perhaps nothing in recent years has received as much criticism as the move GM Jim Rutherford made right before the start of the 2006-07 season.

On Sept. 29, 2006, the Hurricanes shipped off highly touted defensive prospect Jack Johnson — along with salary cap anchor Oleg Tverdovsky — to the Kings for center Eric Belanger and young defenseman Tim Gleason.

Johnson had been the third overall pick in the 2005 Entry Draft, selected right after wunderkind Sidney Crosby and — in a surprising move at the time — rugged winger Bobby Ryan. Johnson, a University of Michigan player and can't-miss prospect, fell into the Canes' lap at No. 3. But he was unwilling to leave the Wolverines to play for Carolina, who wanted him to join the organization as early as the 2005-06 season. When Johnson again balked at signing with the Hurricanes, Rutherford decided to make the deal with Los Angeles. The Canes were a team looking to defend their Stanley Cup title, and they couldn't wait any longer for their top prospect.

Belanger was expected to help fill the void left by Matt Cullen's departure to The Big Apple, while Gleason — just 23 years old but with 125 games of NHL experience under his belt — would infuse youth and toughness into Carolina's blueline.

Belanger was considered a suitable replacement for Cullen, and the shedding of Tverdovsky's contract was viewed as a plus, but no one could get past the Gleason-for-Johnson side of the deal.

Gleason was viewed as a decent young player, a former first-rounder who would sacrifice himself for his team and grow into an on-ice leader as he matured. But Johnson was a star-in-the-making, a prototypical No. 1 defenseman who could skate, hit, pass and score.

Even SB Nation's own James Mirtle saw it as an outright loss for the Canes at the time of the trade. He thought Rutherford might want a do-over after Johnson signed his pro contract with the Kings near the end of that season.

To be fair, Mirtle wasn't alone. In fact, there weren't too many on Tim Gleason Island.

And that didn't change when the Hurricanes failed to make the playoffs in 2007. And 2008.

Gleason had grown into a reliable, stay-at-home defenseman, one the Carolina fans had embraced because of his toughness and determination. But he still lived in Johnson's shadow, despite the fact that the Kings' young rearguard had not yet lived up to his enormous potential.

This season, Gleason had no goals in 70 games. Even defense-first professor emeritus Glen Wesley managed that only once, getting none in 2003-04 (his last five pro seasons saw him score just five times, and never more than twice).

Like Wesley before him, Gleason had become a player that the fans got behind because of his non-stop effort. They appreciated his gritty style and the nuances in his game that made him so effective in his own end. Not too many no-goal guys sell jerseys, and while they weren't numerous, there were enough No. 6 — or 8, or 42 for the diehards — jerseys at the RBC Center each night to take notice.

When Carolina clinched their playoff berth this season, Gleason — along with Tuomo Ruutu and Anton Babchuk — was assured of seeing his first postseason action.

Through seven games, he hasn't disappointed.

Gleason's overtime game-winning goal in Game 2 vs. New Jersey may be remembered as his defining moment of the season, but his contributions go well beyond that.

Gleason and Joe Corvo held Zach Parise — who had dominated Games 1-3 with three goals and two assists — to just one assist in the series' final four games. The pairing's lockdown effort shifted the balance of power in the series. While the Devils' top scorer grew frustrated with the Gleason-Corvo shadowing, it opened the door for Staal and Whitney to chip away at the New Jersey defense.

And then there was Game 7. Staal's surprise winner on Brodeur ruled the coverage of the game, closely followed by Jokinen burying Pitkanen's cross-ice pass that tied the game less than a minute earlier.

But the biggest play during the improbable comeback and win comes from Gleason.

Gleason's diving keep and perfectly fluttered saucer pass to Pitkanen — from his knees! — triggers the game-tying goal by Jokinen, which was shortly followed by Staal's winner.

It was Gleason's second assist of the night, his fourth point in the seven games of the first-round series after a season in which he had just 12 assists. But beyond the scoresheet — also worth noting: his 28 hits this postseason are second in the NHL, his 17 blocked shots fourth — it was Gleason's heart and effort that burned brightest.

When the Devils were frustrated in Carolina's Game 6 win, it was Gleason who dropped the gloves with David Clarkson and let it be known the Canes wouldn't be pushed around. When Parise and his linemates hopped over the boards for another shift, it was Gleason and Corvo who weren't far behind, prepared to neutralize and frustrate the Devils' top scorers. And when the team needed a desperate play at a desperate time, it was Gleason who dove across the ice and flipped the puck to Pitkanen.

I don't know that Jack Johnson could've done all that. And that'll get you some respect.