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Victor Hedman playing by own rules

by Staff Writer / Tampa Bay Lightning

NEW YORK - Victor Hedman highlights should come with a disclaimer: Don't try this at home.

Go ahead. Watch Hedman play for the Tampa Bay Lightning against the New York Islanders in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Second Round on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports). Marvel at how, as a defenseman, he plays the shot instead of the pass on a 2-on-1 or how he ends up above the offensive goal line on the penalty kill.

Just don't think you can copy it in a youth league or beer league. Most players can't in the NHL, and if they tried, they would get benched. Coach Jon Cooper and associate coach Rick Bowness let Hedman break rules that usually apply to defensemen, even when games are so tight and important in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, because he is an exceptional talent with good instincts who always wants to improve.

Hedman has been without his usual steady partner, Anton Stralman, in these playoffs because of injury. He was without his new steady partner, Matt Carle, in Game 2 against the Islanders because of another injury. Still, he's playing his game.

"If you were going on leash length, his is fairly … It might be unlimited," Cooper said. "If he's trying to do too much, it's because we're probably allowing him to do too much. But we take our chances with that because of how important he is to us and how his positives way outnumber his negatives. And so we try to take advantage of that."

It starts with size and speed. Hedman stands 6 feet 6 inches tall and stretches forever with his stick, and he skates so well that Cooper called him a "gazelle." Offensively, he joins the rush as much as possible. Defensively, he smothers opponents.

"I've never seen a man 6-foot-6 skate the way he does," Bowness said. "I've said this many times: Mario was a great skater, and anyone I've seen in this league come 6-6, Victor can outskate them all - forwards, backwards, east to west. It's unreal how much ice he covers."

Yes, that's Mario as in Mario Lemieux.

"He can try things offensively that if they don't work, you know he's going to get back and break the play up," Bowness said of Hedman. "He tries things because he can close on a guy with the puck quicker with his reach and his ability than anyone we've seen."

It goes beyond that, though. Hedman has hockey sense and studies the game. Sometimes he looks like a loose cannon when he's really taking aim.

"He's an aggressive player, but I don't see him being overly aggressive," said Lightning defenseman Braydon Coburn, who partnered with Hedman in Game 2 against the Islanders. "He doesn't take silly chances out there. Everything's very calculated, and he's a smart player."

In Game 1 of the first round against the Detroit Red Wings, Hedman skated backward in the neutral zone as Andreas Athanasiou and Mike Green rushed at him 2-on-1. Instead of continuing to back off, instead of cutting off the passing lane so Athanasiou couldn't dish to Green, instead of doing what defensemen are taught to do, Hedman attacked Athanasiou.

Athanasiou tried to pass. Hedman knocked down the puck with his left glove.

Athanasiou tried to pass again. Hedman knocked down the puck with his stick, controlled it and cleared it.

You might think it was a reckless, lucky play, especially in a 2-2 game in the third period. Afterward, Hedman played up the luck angle, telling reporters he was fortunate the puck hit his glove and then his stick.

But Athanasiou, a speedy rookie in his first NHL playoff game, was counting on Hedman to play the pass. He thought he had time and space, and put his head down. Hedman said he read the play and pounced when he saw Athanasiou's eyes were on the puck. He also said something he had seen on video "came in handy."

"I would say in that situation, nine times out of 10 a defenseman wouldn't attack him like that," Cooper said. "But because he has the ability to jump on you that fast, he takes advantage of a player without his head up, and all of a sudden now, Hedman's in your face. And he's got that long reach, so he cuts that off much faster than other guys would."

Bowness chuckled.

"He can take that gamble," Bowness said. "Even if he doesn't break it up, he's going to be able to recover and still attack the guy who got the pass."

In Game 2 against the Islanders, Hedman ended up battling with defenseman Marek Zidlicky above the goal line in the offensive zone on the penalty kill. How many defensemen do you see do something like that? How many would see the ice again after doing something like that?

But back up the video. Hedman broke up the play on the half wall, and as the puck skidded down the left-wing boards, he looked up and saw only Zidlicky ahead. He chased Zidlicky, a much slower player, and put pressure on him from behind. When he didn't win the battle at the goal line, he sprinted back and got off the ice.

"He's got a green light with me, which is go if that's what his instincts are telling him," Bowness said. "You know as soon as they get control, he'll be the first guy back on our zone. It's unreal."

Hedman is averaging 27:02 in ice time in these playoffs, 10th among skaters who have played more than two games. That's impressive, even though the Lightning played him less in the regular season in part to keep him fresh for the playoffs. Hedman is no Ryan Suter, the ultra-efficient, always-in-the-proper-position Minnesota Wild defenseman. He's expending energy all over the ice against top competition.

"I want to play quality minutes," Hedman said. "I don't want to be out there and do nothing."

If the coaches rein in anything, it's Hedman's emotions.

"He just wants to do so well," Bowness said. "He wants to be a difference-maker every shift. He takes great pride in that, and he gets mad at himself. He's very hard on himself, and one of the things I'm constantly telling him on the bench is, 'Calm down. Be calm.' "

But that's the other reason the coaches are comfortable giving him such a long leash: He does what he does because he cares, not because he doesn't. He isn't lazy or lackadaisical, and he's always learning on the ice in games and on video afterward.

"He's a great student of the game, and he's a sponge for information," Bowness said. "So now we trust his instincts. Is there a red light? I think he's learned when to do that and when not to do that. … When he makes a mistake and does cross the line a little bit, he won't do it again."

The Lightning took Hedman in the 2009 NHL Draft (No. 2) after the Islanders took center John Tavares, and he stepped right into the League. He is already a seven-year veteran. He has already made great strides the past few years. So it's easy to forget, but he's still only 25 years old and still has room to improve.

He isn't a great power-play quarterback and sometimes doesn't play on the first unit. He can roam too far out of position on occasion, like he did when he helped leave Islanders forward Shane Prince alone on the doorstep for a tap-in goal in Game 1. He isn't perfect.

But who is? And how many other players can do what he does? And how many would look foolish trying?

And how good will he be if he gets even better?

"There's no Nicklas Lidstroms in our league today," Bowness said, chuckling again. "He's closer to a Drew Doughty. He's not perfect, but man, oh, man, there's an awful lot to work with."

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