Lightning-Capitals: Tampa Bay’s Game 7 Mr. Essential

Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) before heading down the tunnel for warmups before game two of the first round of the NHL playoffs at Amalie Arena in Tampa Saturday afternoon (04/14/18). DIRK SHADD   |   Times
Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) before heading down the tunnel for warmups before game two of the first round of the NHL playoffs at Amalie Arena in Tampa Saturday afternoon (04/14/18). DIRK SHADD | Times
Published May 22 2018

TAMPA — He's the Lightning's best player. He's its most important player.

Well, other than goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. That's a given. Every team relies most heavily on its goalie.

But if the Lightning is going win a nerve-racking, heart-stopping, nail-biting Game 7 against the Capitals, the cool, calm and collected Victor Hedman will need to be the Lightning's next-best player.

Put it like this: if Hedman has a great Game 7, there's a good chance the Lightning will win. If he has a bad Game 7, the Lightning likely will lose.

That's how important he is to the Lightning.

"Everybody is important,'' Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

To some extent, particular in a winner-take-all game, that is true. But Cooper also knows how much he relies on his big Swedish defenseman.

He's more important that Nikita Kucherov. More important than Steven Stamkos. Those guys can have so-so games and the Lightning might be able to get away with it.

It can't afford a mediocre game from Hedman.

He's more than a star. He's essential.

"Victor is such a huge part of our team,'' Cooper said. "He plays in every situation for us.''

Hedman is expected to do it all.

Even-strength. Power play. Penalty kill. He is supposed to create goals for the Lightning and see to it that the other team doesn't score. He controls the pace of the game. He jumps into the play when the Lightning needs offense, and is sure to get back when the Lightning is in trouble.

He rushes the puck. Fires slap shots from the blue line. Blocks shots. Throws shoulders.

He does everything.

When Game 7 is over, it's likely Hedman will have played more minutes than any player in the game except for the goalies.

And they will be big minutes. Important minutes. Critical moments. Meaningful shifts. Seems like every time you look up, Hedman is out there.

While there's chaos all over, Hedman plays the game like he sees it in slow motion.

So relaxed. So reliable.

He regularly plays at least 24 minutes a game. In Game 1 of this series, he played more than 27 minutes. That's nearly half the game.

Only the most elite defensemen in the world log those kind of minutes and still play like an elite player. He has played so much this postseason, you have to wonder what he has left in the tank for Game 7. He wasn't great in the 3-0 loss in Game 6.

Hedman is not worried.

"Adrenaline and everything,'' Hedman said. "My body feels in good shape. It's a long season, but these are the kind of games you want to play. This is why you play hockey, to hit your stride in the playoffs and be a difference maker. That's what (Tuesday) is for. It's about rest and getting everything you need ready for (Game 7)."

Hedman has plenty of experience in Game 7s. This will be his sixth. He has played well in the previous five. He will have to play well in this one.

After all, this is why he is here.

"We put the pressure on ourselves to be difference makers every night,'' Hedman says. He's talking about the stars of on his team. But he's also talking about himself.

NHL teams dream of getting such a No. 1 defenseman. In fact, that's all some teams do: dream about it. They're so hard to acquire. The Lightning had to use the second overall pick in the 2009 draft to take Hedman.

Like all big, lanky kids, it took a while for the 6-foot-6 defenseman to figure out how to the play the game at the NHL level. But Hedman certainly has. He's the favorite to win the Norris Trophy, given to the league's best defenseman, this season — his ninth in the NHL.

But awards and accolades means little compared to the big trophy.

Contracts are made in the regular season. That's why Hedman signed an eight-year, $63 million contract extension in 2016.

But legends are made in the postseason. And that's fine with Hedman.

He expects to play well in Game 7.

The Lightning absolutely requires it if hopes to get the Stanley Cup final.

Contact Tom Jones at Follow @tomwjones