By Kostya Kennedy
May 20, 2009

There is something truly ugly about these NHL playoffs, something that has drawn a little comment here and there, inspired the occasional raised eyebrow, led to a snigger or two. It's something that, as it refuses to go away -- and in fact grows worse with each passing day -- needs to be addressed:

Sidney Crosby's playoff beard.

Oh, what a hideous thing, not fit for the eyes of woman or babe.

This is not merely some wimpy peach fuzz of the kind that Crosby had in previous years and that afflicts so many young postseason players. No, this is a scraggly and mangy growth that poisons the man's chin, pollutes his jawbone, desecrates his upper lip.

If you didn't hear, Crosby was just named by Hello Canada magazine as one of the 50 most beautiful Canadians alive.

Not anymore.

It is the rare man whose countenance is actually elevated by a beard -- Abe Lincoln and Santa Claus are the only two who come to mind -- but for plenty of people, and plenty of players in these NHL conference finals, the playoff beard comes off pretty cool. Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell may look lousy coughing up the puck in overtime, but his full Barbarosa looks good in the room.

Crosby's in a league of his own in this year's postseason -- and not just because he's the best player left and is leading the league in scoring. No, when it comes to lousy beards, Crosby is peerless on the ice. He's more in Philip Seymour Hoffman territory. And maybe that's a comparison worth watching.

Hoffman, his occasionally frightful facial notwithstanding, is about the best, most compelling and most versatile actor alive. Crosby is his equal on the ice. In the NHL playoffs it's not how you look, it's how you play -- a very fortunate bottom line for Sidney.

Assuming you're not living in Blackhawks nation, you have to love rooting for Red Wings forward Daniel Cleary. On a Detroit team populated with folks like Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datysuk and Nicklas Lidstrom, it was the decidedly unheralded Cleary who had the series-winning goal against Anaheim, a two-goal game against Chicago in Game 1, and who scored on a breakaway in Game 2.

Okay, maybe "unheralded" is a little passé. Cleary's been part of Detroit's arsenal for four years now, and won the Cup with them a season ago. But last postseason, he produced exactly three points in 22 games. A role player on his best nights. This postseason, he's got 12 points already, securing his place on Zetterberg's line

But that's hardly reason to root for him, of course. What's to root for is a player who saved his own career, who overcame his tendency for self-destruction, who got himself into shape (finally!) and found a team that was willing to believe in him.

This is a guy who was just about out of hockey altogether when the lockout ended, whose once high prospects (he was a No. 13 overall draft pick) seemed doomed after years of disappointing production in Edmonton. This is a guy who has battled demons -- the DUI he reportedly got as a teenager has stuck to him like briar on corduroy pants -- and his own willful indifference. This is a guy who, for all his talent, got cut from the 1997 world junior team by now-Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. (If you don't sacrifice yourself on the ice for Babcock, you don't play, period.)

And this is a guy who made the Red Wings in the fall of 2005 through a non-guaranteed tryout and has never given up his spot. Last summer, Cleary became the first man ever to bring the Stanley Cup back home to Newfoundland. Think that mattered to folks on the Rock? Newfoundland's premier, Danny Williams, went to Detroit to meet with Cleary during last year's finals. When Cleary brought Stanley home, thousands of people followed him at every stop.

Cleary is 30 now, married and a father. He's matured on the ice, too, playing ever-responsible defense -- "that's the most important thing" he said after Game 2 against Chicago -- and exploiting offensive opportunities at exactly the right time. As is the Red Wings way, Cleary signed a contract well below market value last spring so that he could stay in Detroit.

Of course, $14 million over five years isn't so bad. That money, security and postseason life he's now leading are all much more than Daniel Cleary ever thought he'd have.

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