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Victor Hedman rises to occasion as stakes grow

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

If last season’s Stanley Cup run was the moment the rest of the National Hockey League learned how tremendously gifted Victor Hedman is, this year’s playoff performance by Hedman is a slap-you-in-the-face reminder he’s one of the most talented defensemen in the world.

And he’s only going to get better.

At 25 years old, Hedman is just reaching the prime of his hockey career in his seventh season in the league, a sobering thought for the rest of the NHL as the previous six seasons have been pretty impressive too.

During the 2015-16 regular season, Hedman led all Bolts blueliners for goals (10). He paced the entire team for assists (37) – ranking tied for 12th among NHL defensemen – and was the third leading scorer on Tampa Bay (47 points).

But it’s in the postseason when Hedman really elevates his game.

The Lightning defeated the New York Islanders in five games in a Second Round series to advance to their second-straight Eastern Conference Final, third in the last six years and fourth overall.

Hedman provided the bulk of the offense for the Bolts, recording a team-high eight points in the series (next highest was Tyler Johnson with six). His four goals against the Islanders were matched only by Nikita Kucherov, who just so happens to pace the entire NHL for goals this postseason (9).

Hedman scored two goals – including one on the power play – in the series-clinching Game 5. He also paced the Bolts for time on ice (27:43) in the final game of the series and has led the team for TOI in each game this postseason, averaging 27 and a half minutes.

“He’s been huge for us,” Lightning center Brian Boyle said. “He’s a great teammate, a great person. He demands a ton from himself. If he’s not playing 30 (minutes), he’s angry. He wants to play. He wants to be out there. He’s done a great job on both ends of the ice for us. His gaps, he closes on guys, he frustrates guys defensively. You see him bring the puck up the ice, he’s just such a great skater. He continues to get better and better, even in these playoffs.”

Hedman registered his first career multi-goal playoff game on Sunday, becoming just the third defenseman in franchise history to do so and the first to do it in a clinching game.

His four goals and eight points in the Second Round were also Lightning playoff records for a defenseman.

“I want to be at my best and help this team win, and the whole team’s effort is unreal,” Hedman said, deflecting praise when reminded of his postseason accomplishments. “We battle for each other, and that’s paying off right now. We’ve got to keep that going.”

Last playoffs, Hedman was regarded as one of the best players throughout the two month postseason, and arguably the best, as Tampa Bay made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. Hedman’s ability to neutralize the opposition’s biggest offensive threat at one end while joining the rush and becoming a primary offensive threat himself at the other had the hockey cognoscenti salivating.

In the Islanders’ series, both sides of his game were on full display again. Besides leading the Lightning in scoring, Hedman was often matched up against Isles’ All-Star John Tavares and held Tavares in check throughout the series. Tavares had a goal and an assist in Game 1 but was shut out over the final four games and finished minus-five over the last three games.

“I would love to take the credit, but it’s the whole team, it’s all five guys on the ice,” Hedman said, deflecting again. “Trying to eliminate his scoring chances and his opportunities in front of the net is the big key for us. He’s one of the best players in this league and we obviously want to have the puck as much as we can offensively, but you’ve got to eliminate as much time and space as possible and we try and get him off the puck as soon as we can. I think we did a pretty good job of that, and, obviously, going through to the next round, we did a lot of good things.”

In March, Hedman was selected for Sweden’s 2016 World Cup of Hockey team, a prestigious international achievement for the Ornskoldsvik native and an affirmation of the growing belief he’s a top ten, maybe top five defenseman in the world right now.

“I think you look at some of the players that really got put on the big stage last year, and when you play 26 playoff games last year, and Hedman was a monster in pretty much all of them, which helped us get there,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said in his post-Game 5 press conference. “You could say that about a bunch of our players. You don’t really move on without having your best players be your best players, and I thought tonight was pretty indicative of what Victor Hedman’s done for us. When the big boy’s rolling, we feed off that. He was a major factor in this win tonight.”

He’s also a major reason the Lightning are in the Eastern Conference Final a second-consecutive year.

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