TAMPA — Victor Hedman said he hit his peak during last year's postseason, putting himself in the Conn Smythe Trophy consideration with a 26-game coming-out party.
"He was a monster in pretty much all of them," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
And after watching the defenseman's dazzling performance Sunday, his two goals lifting the Lightning into the Eastern Conference final with a 4-0 win over the Islanders in Game 5 of their second-round series, Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman said the 6-foot-6 Swede is "back to where he was" last year.
"Come playoff time, you want to be your best," Hedman said.
Hedman's matchup with the Islanders' best player, captain John Tavares, was expected to go a long way in deciding the series. The showdown was more juicy considering that Tavares and Hedman went 1-2, respectively, in the 2009 draft. But Hedman dominated, racking up eight points (four goals) in the series and helping hold the center without a point in the final four games — all Lightning wins — in which Tavares was minus-5.
"You don't move on without having your best players be your best players," Cooper said. "And I thought (Sunday) was pretty indicative of what Victor Hedman has done for us. When the big boy is rolling, we feed off that, and he was a major factor in us winning."
Without two of its best players, captain Steven Stamkos (blood clot) and defenseman Anton Stralman (fractured leg), the Lightning advanced to the conference final for the second straight year, getting there in just 10 games. It plays the winner of the Penguins-Capitals series, which Pittsburgh leads 3-2.
Goalie Ben Bishop was stellar again with 28 saves, giving him four shutouts in the Lightning's five series-clinching wins over the past two seasons. Wing Nikita Kucherov tallied his playoffs-leading ninth goal.
But it was Hedman who stole the show in 27:43 of ice time. His first goal started the scoring six minutes in, on a spin-and-fire shot from the slot. And his power-play goal, another blast, pretty much sealed it four minutes into the second period. Bowman, who has a home in the area and often attends Lightning games, said Hedman is even more dangerous offensively than last year, looking to shoot.
"He's a dynamic player," Islanders forward Matt Martin said. "He's one of the best defensemen in the league. He's very hard to play against."
But Tavares is also one of the best in the world, and no player was hotter heading into this series. He had five goals and four assists against the Panthers in the first round. But other than two points in Game 1, on a goal and an assist in 5-3 New York win, Tavares was shut out. He showed his frustration with a huge slash on Lightning wing Ryan Callahan in the second period. "I just didn't get it done," Tavares said.
Hedman said it was a team effort, but there's no question he played a large role, often matching up with Tavares, limiting his time and space. In the next round, Hedman will draw either Washington's Alex Ovechkin or Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby.
"If you want to give yourself a chance to win, you have to somehow keep their best players from being their best players," Cooper said. "For the most part of this series, if we were going to have a chance to win, we had to neutralize (Tavares)."
Largely thanks to Hedman, the Lightning did.
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Hedman 3, 13:49. 2, Tampa Bay, Boyle 3 (Carle, Paquette), 18:41. Penalties—Paquette, TB (high-sticking), 0:10; Quine, NYI (high-sticking), 10:37.
Second Period—3, Tampa Bay, Hedman 4 (Drouin, Johnson), 4:22 (pp). Penalties—Hamonic, NYI (roughing), 3:40; Tavares, NYI, double-minor, served by Strome (slashing-roughing), 15:38; Sustr, TB (roughing), 15:38; Martin, NYI (interference), 19:09; Paquette, NYI (delay of game), 19:09.
Third Period—4, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 9 (Killorn), 4:40. Penalties—Paquette, NYI (boarding), 1:57; Boychuk, NYI (cross-checking), 6:17; Hickey, NYI (slashing), 12:18. Shots on Goal—NY Islanders 6-10-12—28. Tampa Bay 9-9-7—25. Power-play opportunities—NY Islanders 0 of 2; Tampa Bay 1 of 5. Goalies—NY Islanders, Greiss 5-6 (25 shots-21 saves). Tampa Bay, Bishop 8-2 (28-28).