TAMPA – Let’s get one thing straight. The New York Islanders absolutely made the right call with they took John Tavares first overall in the 2009 entry draft. Now, let’s get another thing straight. Victor Hedman, who was taken right after Tavares, is taking over the Stanley Cup final.
There was no shortage of storylines after Game 3 of the final, which the Tampa Bay Lightning won 3-2 over the Chicago Blackhawks. Ben Bishop and his gutsy performance playing on what seems to be only one good leg was one of them. The emergence of Cedric Paquette as a two-way weapon and the play of the Lightning’s bottom-six forwards was another. But Hedman has been off the charts, particularly in Games 2 and 3. He snuffed out Patrick Kane at every turn and has contributed four assists, two of them in Game 3 on the kinds of passes that are the domain of only the elite players in the NHL.
If Hedman’s stretch pass to Ryan Callahan on the Lightning’s first goal wasn’t impressive enough, Hedman followed that up with a bold foray into the offensive zone with just over three minutes to play in the game. Then he had the presence of mind to get the puck to Paquette, who buried the game-winner.
“I was looking at the puck because it was starting to bounce around a little bit,” Hedman said of his play on the winning goal. “I took it wide and I saw (Paquette) going hard to the net, so I was trying to throw it in an area where (Blackhawks goalie Corey) Crawford couldn’t get a stick on it. (Paquette) did a good job and went hard and got a tip on it.”
It’s getting to the point now where if the Lighting goes on to win the Stanley Cup, Hedman stands a good chance of becoming the third Swedish player in NHL history to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the playoffs. Henrik Zetterberg won the award in 2008 and Nicklas Lidstrom in 2002. Which is fitting since Hedman looked up to Lidstrom when he was growing up. At 6-foot-6, he’d now be looking down at Lidstrom. But while Lidstrom was an influence, Hedman gave a lot of credit to former NHLer Mattias Timander, with whom Hedman played for MoDo in the Swedish League before coming to the NHL.
“He just told me to play my game,” Hedman said, “and he would clean up after me.”
Hedman is pretty clean in his own end these days. Playing with another Swedish veteran in Anton Stralman, Hedman has taken on an enormous amount of responsibility in the past two seasons. And with the Lightning in the final, the world is beginning to see just how good he is.
“What he’s doing, I mean, this is clearly his coming-out party,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of Hedman. “He sets that (Callahan) one up and them makes a big-time play on the winner. He was a monster out there tonight.”
Former Lightning coach John Tortorella has long maintained that it takes defensemen between 250 and 300 games before they can truly become elite players. That has proved to be the case with Hedman, who went into the 2013-14 season with 258 career games. It was actually last season that Hedman really began to assert himself and that trend has continued this season. And Cooper has grown to not worry about Hedman.
“He’s pretty much got free rein with me,” Cooper said. “He’s got my trust…It took him a few years, but Victor Hedman’s arrived.”
The game will also be marked by the gutsy performance put forth by Bishop, who is clearly battling an injury. The Lightning isn’t even hiding that anymore, although it will not tell what the nature of it is. When asked what the nature of the injury is, Cooper replied, “We’ll have to wait until this series ends for that. Sorry.”
Bishop stopped 36 shots and survived a scare when Brandon Saad ran him over in the second period. And for the second straight game, he clearly outplayed Crawford, who struggled again in the Chicago net. Of the three goals the Lightning scored, two of them were stoppable. Bishop kept the Lightning in the game in the first period when it was outshot by a 19-7 margin, but went into the dressing room tied 1-1. At one point in the first, the Lightning had gone 13:20 without a shot.
“He gave us a chance to hit the reset button,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. “And we came out and were much better after that.”
GAME 3 THREE STARS
1. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay: As Cooper said, he was a monster with his play at both ends of the ice.
2. Ben Bishop, Tampa Bay: It wasn’t Bobby Baun, but for him to play that well through what is clearly significant pain is a feat.
3. Marian Hossa, Chicago: Was strong on the puck all night. Hossa had two assists, but will have nightmares about the opportunities he missed.