-- There was a time when Brett Lebda never thought he'd be rooting against the Chicago Blackhawks. Not anymore.
In fact, Lebda, who grew up in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, and rooted for the Blackhawks until he was signed as a free agent by the hated Red Wings after finishing a four-year career at the University of Notre Dame in the summer of 2004.
And after receiving a ton of negative text messages from his boyhood friends for being on the wrong side, in the Western Conference Finals, he took particular pleasure at setting up both goals in Detroit's 2-1 overtime victory against Chicago in Game 5 Wednesday night to send the Red Wings to the Stanley Cup finals for the second-straight year.
"My buddies were giving me a hard time with the text messages," the 27-year-old, 5-foot-9, 195-pound defenseman said with a big smile. "They probably won't want to face me this summer."
We've talked a lot about unlikely heroes in the playoffs for the Red Wings this season with the injuries to captain Nicklas Lidstrom
and veteran forwards Pavel Datsyuk
and Kris Draper. Lebda was called into action in Game 5 because of an emergency appendectomy to defenseman Jonathan Ericsson
after this Wednesday's morning skate.
He wound up playing 25 minutes, five seconds in the game, contributing the two assists on four shots, with two hits and two blocked shots. In the regular season, Brett played as much as 18 minutes in a game only four times in 65 appearances. Only four times prior to Game 5 did he play more than 16 minutes in the playoffs -- 23:24 in Detroit's triple-overtime victory over Anaheim in the second round.
Lebda said his performance and the other players who have taken on bigger roles in the playoffs because of injury shows the character of the team's core players, following their leadership.
"I know my role here. I'm very much OK with the minutes I get," he added. "The experience of playing with such a gifted group of players and learning how to do it the right way is so rewarding."
Undrafted, Lebda clearly shows the patience and poise it takes to wait his turn.
"You understand how lucky you are to play with such a talented group of players and learn from them, when you watch the others finish their season and are out playing golf or boating or some other leisure activity," he said.
"I thought (Wednesday) especially, different guys stepped up again," winger Dan Cleary said after eliminating the ‘Hawks. "Lebda really played a great game for us. He played a lot of minutes and was in on both goals."
"I know my role here. I'm very much OK with the minutes I get. The experience of playing with such a gifted group of players and learning how to do it the right way is so rewarding." -- Brett Lebda
Said coach Mike Babcock, " 'Lebs' is a real good player. Very reliable. Accountable on defense and he's a guy who can really move the puck."
One of those hockey kid makes good stories.
"I was just like everyone else, playing hockey in the driveway, pretending to lift the Stanley Cup, and then it happens and you can't believe it," Lebda said. "But you don't get there without the whole organization and every teammate and all the people who helped you when you were young."
During the celebration for beating the Blackhawks, Brett was asked if this was his best moment.
"I wouldn't say that," Lebda said, pointing out how playing in the finals against Pittsburgh last year was a dream come true. "Big game for me? Yes. I'm not used to that many minutes, but I wasn't exhausted at the end.
"I found out that Johnny had gone for tests after practice and coach told me be ready for more minutes. And while I may be breathing a little harder than usual after a game, I can't turn off the big, silly smile I have on my face."
Lebda had just four assists in his first 15 playoff games, after contributing 6 goals and 10 assists in the regular season.
"It's amazing how much fun this was," Lebda said. "I was asked to do a lot more than usual. I was really into the game. The hits, the assists, the minutes, the blocked shots."
Brett Lebda paused for a moment to take it all in, before he added: "It was especially rewarding to do this against the team I grew up rooting for."
Author: Larry Wigge | NHL.com Columnist