When Brian Lebler came to Ann Arbor, most of the time he was gasping for air.
“He was a lumbering skater. He would just kind of lumber up and down the ice. He had limited endurance. When we would do our down-and-backs, he would just die. So I was all over him about his conditioning, about his weight.”
For the senior, two words are more important than the rest of Michigan coach Red Berenson’s take on his early time with the Michigan hockey team — “was” and “would.”
Despite his past shortcomings and with his Michigan career dwindling, Lebler has elevated his game and, according to Berenson is, “playing the best hockey of his career right now,” and it’s hard to argue against it. The Penticton, British Columbia native has set career highs in goals (12) assists (9) and points (21) this season and proved to be more of a factor than the stats have shown.
In Michigan’s series-clinching win over Michigan State last Saturday, the game-winning goal came from Lebler’s linemate, freshman Chris Brown. But it was Lebler who hit a Spartan defenseman in the corner to free up the puck. Lebler then rolled to the net to get a whack at the puck, right before Brown found it and put it in.
“He’s a physical force out there and that might have led to Brown’s winning goal,” Berenson said. “It’s not a pretty goal but it looks pretty on paper.”
The late game effort was missing in Lebler’s previous seasons, as his conditioning and skating wasn’t where it needed to be. He played in just 29 of the team’s 41 games as a sophomore, registering just eight points.
But last season, he took a small step forward, scoring 16 points and establishing himself as a power forward for the Wolverines.
“Last year I thought we saw a big difference in his conditioning and his skating and he looked lighter on his feet and he was playing lighter,” Berenson said. “Then, he got working on his shot … then he got working on his work ethic … . When all those things start coming together you start getting some results.”
Lebler’s physicality and his 6-foot-3, 212 pound frame have found him a niche at power forward on the third line, playing along with Brown and freshman A.J. Treais. The three have been playing together since the start of the postseason and have notched two goals in four games.
As the only veteran presence on the line, Lebler has been forced into a leadership role.
“I feel like I have to be a leader everywhere,” Lebler said. “But those two guys are mature hockey players and they know what they’re doing out there. … I don’t feel like I have to carry them, or I don’t feel like they don’t know what they’re doing out there. Sometimes I feel like they’re kind of teaching me.”
When Michigan plays for its season on Friday against No. 2 Miami in the CCHA semifinals, Berenson won’t be quite as uneasy about seeing Lebler “lumber” down the ice. Something has finally clicked.
“I think he, like a lot of players, he finally gets it,” Berenson said. “He gets it. He gets the fact of how hard you have to work every day, and how you’re trying to get better, and how you’re trying to become a better player every year.”
Injury notes: Senior captain Chris Summers will be out for both games this weekend with a knee injury. He hasn’t skated since he left Michigan’s Mar. 6 game against Lake Superior State. … junior goalie Bryan Hogan skated in his first full practice yesterday since injuring his knee Feb. 25. Berenson has stated that junior Shawn Hunwick is his starting goalie, but is still unsure whether Hogan will dress in the backup role.