The banged-up Red Wings, playing without stars Nicklas Lidstrom and Pavel Datsyuk, needed Helm and Cleary to eliminate the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals Wednesday night.
Helm scored 3:58 into overtime, and Cleary had a goal in the third period in the defending champion Red Wings' 2-1 victory over Chicago that set up a Stanley Cup finals rematch with Pittsburgh.
"We lose guys and we keep getting the job done," defenseman Brett Lebda said.
Detroit won 4-1 in a series that needed overtime in three of the last four games.
"We blew them out one game, but by no means was it easy," said goalie Chris Osgood, who made 30 saves.
The Red Wings and Penguins, coming off a four-game sweep over Carolina in the East, will open the championship series Saturday night in Detroit.
The series will start nearly a week ahead of schedule because NBC and the NHL didn't want a long layoff to stunt the excitement about the matchup.
One of the intriguing stories will be Detroit's Marian Hossa playing against the team he left behind as a free agent. Hossa turned down a long-term, lucrative deal from the Penguins last summer for a one-year contract because he believed the Red Wings had a better shot to win it all again.
"It's a unique situation right now, definitely this doesn't happen often," Hossa said. "I try to make the best of the situation for myself and try to help the team win a Cup."
"To have the opportunity against Pittsburgh should be a lot of fun," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "There will be a lot of hype."
The Red Wings, the first defending champion to get back to the finals since New Jersey in 2001, are trying to become the first team to repeat since they accomplished the feat in 1997 and '98.
In the Western Conference finale, both teams were missing key players.
"Everybody picked up the slack," said 47-year-old defenseman Chris Chelios, who played only because Detroit's blue line was so thin.
Goalie Cristobal Huet kept the Blackhawks in the game, but a bad bounce for them and a fortunate one for Detroit ended the game.
Detroit sent the puck behind Huet, Tomas Holmstrom got it across the crease after the carom and, after fanning with a shot attempt from the edge of the crease, Helm was credited with the series-clinching goal after it went in off his skate.
"Those are the kind of goals you score in the later stages in playoffs," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "We got hemmed in their end. It was a tough one."
Despite helping Chicago reach the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and the conference finals for the first time since 1995, Jonathan Toews took the season-ending loss hard.
"It's pretty hard kick to the ribs," Toews said. "It stinks quite a bit, but maybe it's the motivation and experience we needed."
Cleary opened the scoring 6:08 into the third period, and Chicago's Patrick Kane tied it with 7:07 left in regulation with his first goal of the series.
Huet made 44 saves for the Blackhawks. He forced overtime with a spectacular stop from his stomach, lifting his right leg to knock away Johan Franzen's shot in the closing seconds.
"He played great," Quenneville said. "He is to be commended. The game he played kept us in it."
Ericsson was a surprise scratch, needing surgery after being diagnosed with acute appendicitis following the morning skate. The Red Wings expect the rookie to return for Game 1 against Pittsburgh. ... Lidstrom was out with an undisclosed injury, and Datsyuk missed his third straight game because of a foot injury. ... Havlat was shook up in each of the last two games by hard hits and Khabibulin left Game 3 with a lower body injury. ... Quenneville fell to 0-5 against the Red Wings in the playoffs and they hope a trend continues. After beating a Quenneville-coached team, Detroit hoisted the Cup last year, in 2002, 1998 and 1997. ... The Red Wings are an NHL-best 8-1 in the playoffs at home this year.