Tampa Bay Coach Jon Cooper called defenseman Victor Hedman's emergence as a force in the Stanley Cup Final a coming-out party, but Hedman's teammates aren't surprised the 6-foot-6 Swede has excelled during his first experience on hockey's biggest stage.
"We've got to see it and witness it for most of this season," forward Brenden Morrow said. "The rest of y'all are getting to see it now."
The hockey world has seen Hedman take on a heavy workload and take over a game at both ends of the ice. His precise passes set up the Lightning's first and third goals in a 3-2 comeback victory over the Blackhawks on Monday, but his team-leading five blocked shots and relentless work with Anton Stralman in shutting down Chicago center Jonathan Toews were equally vital in lifting Tampa Bay to a 2-1 series lead heading into Game 4 Wednesday at the United Center.
In many ways Hedman is Tampa Bay's equivalent of Chicago cornerstone Duncan Keith. Hedman's plus-12 postseason defensive rating is second only to Keith's plus-14, and his production of one goal and 14 points is second among defensemen only to Keith's two goals and 20 points. Hedman's average ice time of 23 minutes and 46 seconds lags behind Keith's 31:20, but few humans have Keith's endurance.
"There's no doubt with his size, his skating ability, I mean, he's been making plays, he's been offensive. In a lot of ways, yeah, he is a guy like Duncan who makes, more times than not, the players he's out there with better," Toews said Tuesday, a rest day for both teams. "He's a catalyst when he's in his own zone or the offensive zone. He's definitely a guy we need to get on a little bit more."
First, the Blackhawks must catch Hedman, who has been touted for stardom since he was chosen second in the 2009 entry draft.
"He can get out of trouble with moving the puck with his stick or with his feet," Morrow said. "I don't know if he's as smooth as Scott Niedermayer was, but he can move like him and he's about four or five inches taller. He's a monster."
Quite a compliment. But in typically modest hockey player fashion, Hedman shared the credit for having elevated his game.
"It's easy for an individual to get better when you play with such great teammates. It's no different for me," said Hedman, who missed six weeks early this season after undergoing surgery on a fractured finger. "I always go out there and want to make a difference on both ends of the ice.
"For an individual, you need the whole team behind you. I'm fortunate enough to be on this team. The resiliency we showed throughout the playoffs, we had some adversity but every time we faced some we bounced right back."
Hedman, 24, often was the reason they rebounded. Before being instrumental in the third-period rally Monday, he had set up Jason Garrison's decisive power-play goal in Game 2.
"For me it's all about trying to make the play that's there, try not to force things too much," he said. "Trying to use my strengths as a player."
Those strengths were especially useful Monday, with goaltender Ben Bishop hampered by an undisclosed injury. Hedman and his teammates protected the gritty Bishop extremely well; Bishop did his part by making 36 saves.
Cooper had no update on Bishop's physical state but had a glowing assessment of Bishop's and the team's emotional state.
"The burning desire to win, the burning desire to hoist that Stanley Cup, it can move mountains," Cooper said. "That's what it's doing with our players. It's unreal to watch."
The Blackhawks aren't enjoying that spectacle. They've got problems of their own. Coach Joel Quenneville said top-four defenseman Johnny Oduya, who played limited minutes in the second and third periods Monday, has an upper-body injury and will be reevaluated Wednesday. If he's not at full strength the Blackhawks will have a tough time ending their first two-game losing streak of the playoffs.
"I think we should be exiting Game 2 and Game 3 with anger, a lot of emotions. There's got to be purpose behind it," Quenneville said, adding that players can't dwell on those losses. "I think there's confidence in the group that we're able to do it. I'm worried about one game. And we haven't seen our best yet."
Scarier still is that the rest of the NHL might not have seen the best of Hedman yet.