Hudler steps up
Lebda's roommate on the road for the past three seasons, Jiri Hudler, sat in their room before Game 3 of the Western Conference final and told Lebda what would happen. As he does on rare occasion with Lebda, Hudler said that he would score a goal that night.
Not for bet's sake. Not to be a braggart. And not to be humorous.
It was a feeling mentioned to one teammate with nothing but the upcoming battle on their minds.
Hudler did score in Game 3, potting the goal that put the Detroit Red Wings ahead for good on their way to a 5-2 victory, giving them a 3-0 series lead heading into tonight's Game 4 in Dallas.
"He doesn't tell me that a lot," said Lebda. "Usually when he tells me that, he gets one. It's weird. When he scored he came to the bench and just looked at me. I was just shaking my head."
Predictions are impressive, leading to the thought that a player can be in sync with the very nature of the game.
But production trumps prediction every time in sport. And Jiri Hudler is producing for the Red Wings in this post-season.
Despite playing on the fourth forward line and averaging just 11:06 of ice time per game -- of the 12 forwards in the Detroit lineup for Game 3, that ranks ninth -- Hudler is fourth on the Red Wings in playoff scoring with 12 points in 13 games.
Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg receive much of the attention for the Red Wings' offensive production. Johan Franzen and his league-high 12 playoff goals has been an international story.
But contributions from Hudler -- only Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Franzen have more points or goals -- help keep the Red Wings from being a one-line team.
Linemate Darren McCarty, who assisted on Hudler's winning goal, Monday, smiles thinking about Hudler's post-season success. McCarty calls Hudler Detroit's "secret weapon."
"When your fourth line left winger has (12 points), he can play," said Detroit coach Mike Babcock. "Everything about Hudler, he's a little guy, but he's competitive. He's strong. He holds onto pucks. Like the goal he scored (Monday) night, he's as good as anybody on our team in finding the space."
The goal Hudler scored happened because he waited and waited, then snuck behind the Dallas defensemen, slowly skating backwards. When Niklas Kronwall zipped a pass to Hudler, he turned and dashed to the net, scoring on the breakaway.
No better analogy for the early part of a career could be made.
Hudler got a taste of the NHL at the young age of 19, getting in 12 games with the Red Wings. After three seasons with Grand Rapids of the AHL, Hudler had his first full NHL campaign last winter. Once he got that opportunity -- that breakaway pass -- he made it count.
"I was lucky I got a sniff of the NHL my first year, playing in the NHL is a dream of every hockey player," said Hudler. "Fortunately I was drafted here. There's a lot of different teams in the league. I feel I got lucky. I just had to have patience. In the beginning, you kind of think about this is a good team, am I going to get a chance. This is how it works with the Detroit Red Wings. They put the young guys in position to get confidence. When you're ready, you're going to play."
Sometimes we lose track of Hudler's progress as easily as defensemen do. Because Hudler got a taste of the NHL at such a young age, he's often thought of as being more of a veteran than he is.
Hudler is two years younger than Lebda, but was in the NHL two years before his roommate. Hudler is three years younger than Kronwall, but debuted two months before him. Hudler is two years younger than Tomas Kopecky and the same age (24) as Derek Meech and Valtteri Filppula.
Hudler has been integrated more and more in the Red Wings' lineup as his career has aged. After that brief call-up, Hudler tallied 25 points last season and 42 points this season. After being a healthy scratch for most of last year's playoffs, he's averaging nearly a point per game this spring and hasn't sat out once.
Roles on NHL teams aren't the same as calling your shots to a roommate before a game. You can't predict who's going to fit where or how much success they'll have.
But right now, Hudler is looking a lot like Detroit's fourth-line forwards from past great teams.
"That's what the Red Wings were about for years and years, before the cap world, was that the fourth line could score," said Babcock. "Everyone else checked, but theirs scored. And I think obviously if you have (Igor) Larionov and (Luc) Robitaille on it, that's going to happen. But when you have Hudler and (Darren) Helm, they've given us goals."