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Damien Brunner gives Red Wings reason to smile, scowl plus 2nd Shootout winner

03/01/2013, 5:45pm CST
By Helene St. James:

Got fogged in for two hours this morning at the San Jose airport; perfect time to cast a few thoughts Damien Brunner's way.

Switezerland's fourth-best export (1. Lindt chocolate; 2. Toblerone; 3. Neutrality) secured the Detroit Red Wings a 2-1 victory over the Sharks on Thursday night. Hilariously enough, in talking about Brunner's deftness with the puck after the game , the first thing coach Mike Babcock said was how he had just wanted to strangle Brunner.

"With 40 seconds left, when he turned it over at their blue line," Babcock said, "it's a good thing my hands couldn't reach his neck."

Brunner's eventual handiwork was huge for the Wings, as it stabilized them heading into Sunday's marquee home game against the NHL-best Chicago Blackhawks (here's hoping Chicago beats Columbus tonight, giving the Wings a shot at history this weekend).

It's the second time Brunner's handiwork has ensured shoot-out success; he showed everyone what he could do in the second game of the season, when he dragged a forehand into Columbus' net. Does Brunner decide in advance what he's going to do? Not necessarily.

"Sometimes I know it when I jump off the ice," he said, smiling. "Sometimes I know when I'm on the red line. Sometimes I know when I'm on the blue line, and sometimes I don't know till I'm there."

Brunner honed his deftness in Switzerland. It all came together with an epiphany. "All of a sudden, you realize: You know, I think goalie has advantage in hockey shoot-outs," Brunner said. "And good players are going to miss. Why should I put myself under pressure going out there? I mean, I know I can score when I have confidence. It's about being loose a little bit out there and have some fun. It makes no sense to put yourself under pressure."

Shoot-out goals don't count as individual goals, but Brunner has plenty of those, too, leading the team. His 16 points are more than the Wings dared envision when they snatched him last summer, after a standout year in Switzerland. They'd like to keep him around, naturally, but from the perspective of Brunner's camp, it makes sense to see just how high his points are going to soar before committing to any money or term.

Brunner's weakness is his defensive-zone play, but "it's all part of the process," Babcock said. "He's smart and he's competitive and he's coachable, and he wants to get better. He's a heck of a player."

Brunner, 27 next weekend, has been a natural fit on Henrik Zetterberg's right wing, where he played during the lockout for Zug in Switzerland. Zetterberg's vote of approval helped speed up Brunner's transition to the NHL, and by now, the rest of his new teammates have come to see Brunner's many upsides, too.

"He gives us huge offense," defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. "He's been great for us."

Forward Daniel Cleary, whose locker is near Brunner's in the Wings' dressing room, sees great potential, "He's, obviously, done very well for us, giving us some offense. He's got a nice shot. He's a good skater. I think he's only going to get better as he gets more acclimated with the NHL and with us, with going in tight areas."

As for adopting a Swiss in their international mix, that's going OK, too.

"He's a pretty funny kid," Cleary said. "He's got smile on his face every day. He doesn't have a clue. He just comes around, his hair is always in a mess, and he's smiling every day. I like it."

Contact Helene St. James: 313-222-2295 or hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames.

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