Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman often overlooked
Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman during the first period against the Detroit Red Wings at Amalie Arena on March 20, 2015. (Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports)
Wearing hockey jerseys and holding long handmade signs in 32C heat outside the Tampa International Jet Center Tuesday afternoon camped a group of hearty Lightning fans, waiting for their team to come home.
When the Lightning finally arrived — about 45 minutes later than scheduled — from New York with its 1-1 split in the Eastern Conference final, the crowd burst into cheers, chants and songs. Every player that drove by drew a roar, like he had just scored a goal.
Attendance was probably somewhere in the 100-150 range, but it sure sounded like a lot more.
“We’re all excited about going back home and playing in front of our fans,” defenceman Victor Hedman said inside the airport lobby, before taking a quick glance outside and smiling. “We can tell they’re excited, too.”
The Bolts now have home ice advantage in their showdown with the Rangers because of a convincing 6-2 victory that was led by Tyler Johnson’s hat trick and Ben Bishop’s goaltending, but also some fancy play from Hedman at both ends of the ice.
With Tampa holding a 3-2 lead late in the second period and Bishop caught behind the net, he slid through the crease to stop a sure goal. Then, early in the third, his fake shot slap pass to Alex Killorn was easily converted to put Tampa up by two.
“Things can happen throughout a game,” Hedman said when asked about his save. “It was a weird play behind the net there, and Bish got stuck. He’s bailed us out so many times during the season, probably bailed me out a few times, so it was my turn to return the favour.”
Sometimes, it seems, people forget about Hedman. They overlook him, which you’d think would be difficult to do with a 6-foot-6, 230-pound small mountain of a defenceman possessing immense skills.
As recently as last year, his own country left him off the roster for the Sochi Olympics. Granted, it did have a bevy of talent from which to choose — ultimately patrolling the Swedish blueline were Alexander Edler, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jonathan Ericsson, Nicklas Hjalmarsson, Erik Karlsson, Nicklas Kronwall and Johnny Oduya.
But Hedman went on to become the fifth-highest scoring defenceman in the NHL, and he’s also a smooth skater and solid defender. Yet he wasn’t qualified to be among the top seven on the Tre Kronor?
People also forget, it seems, the start Hedman had for the Lightning this season. He had a goal in each of the first three games, and seven points in total, before breaking a finger while blocking a shot in Vancouver. He was sidelined for more than a month, and when he did come back it was not with the same offensive pace, but he did enjoy another strong season.
“I don’t think you get to this part of the season without having a top, elite-tier defenceman,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “And (Hedman) is that for us. You look at the two of them, when (Hedman) and (Anton) Stralman are paired together, I think it’s as good as you’re going to get in this league.
“When Hedman is going, our team’s going,” added Cooper. “Sometimes when he’s not, our team isn’t, and that says a lot about a player, that he has that much effect on our team.”
Hedman was the second player picked in the 2009 draft, right after John Tavares. His first experience in the NHL playoffs was as a 20-year-old, when the Lightning made it to the conference final before losing to the Boston Bruins.
Hedman and Steve Stamkos are the only leftovers from that 2011 team.
“That was only my second year in the league, you really didn’t know what to expect,” said Hedman. “And now I feel like I’ve been here for a long time. I feel like I want to take responsibility. I want to be a leader. I want to be a difference maker on the ice.
“Coming into these playoffs, that’s kind of the way I approach it and approach the game. Play at a high level throughout the playoffs, and even though it’s going to be a lot of up and downs, you have to stay focused and prepare for the next game.”
The Bolts need to have the same mentality as a team. They’ve stolen home ice advantage from the Rangers. They can’t give it back now.
“It was a big win for us (Monday),” said Hedman, “but we had to turn around and refocus. It’s a big turn around and big game (Wednesday).”
Entering Round 3, the Tampa talk was about Bishop, Johnson and Stamkos. People, it seemed, overlooked the Hedman factor, and now the big Swede is going, determined to make the difference.
Rangers captain says Game 2 loss 'embarrassing'
Ryan McDonagh called the New York Rangers game “embarrassing” after Monday’s lopsided loss that leaves the Eastern Conference final all squared at a game apiece.
He didn’t change his mind much after a night’s sleep.
“I’ve never seen the group play like that,” McDonagh said at the team’s hotel Tuesday. “There are just a lot of things that we can control, and just trying to make certain that we realize what happened and focus both individually and as a group. We’re really trying to grasp this opportunity because of where we’re at. This is the Eastern Conference finals. There are only two teams left here vying for a chance to go on and compete for the Cup. We’ve got to give ourselves a better chance than that to keep this dream alive.”
Veteran Dominic Moore knew where the Rangers captain was coming from.
“Any time you lose a game, you’re frustrated,” said Moore. “You can be frustrated at any number of things. All of us want to do more. Whenever we lose, the first thing you ask yourself is ‘what could you have done better? What could you yourself have done differently?‘
“I think we’ve just got to, as a group, honestly assess what we can do better collectively as well and forget about it and move on.”