WASHINGTON — On first glance, Victor Hedman made a bad play.
The Lightning defenseman late in the third period Sunday flubbed an attempt to clear the puck from the defensive zone. Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin scored, and Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series at the Verizon Center went to overtime.
Had the mistake occurred earlier in the season, Hedman would have been so rattled —despite almost laughable extenuating circumstances — "he would have had trouble playing the rest of the game," coach Guy Boucher said.
But Sunday, Boucher said, "He came back even stronger."
A significant indication Hedman, 20, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2009 draft, finally has figured it out.
Not bad timing with the Lightning heading into Game 3 tonight at the St. Pete Times Forum with a two games to none lead over Washington in their best-of-seven series. Really, though, the 6-foot-6, 229-pounder with the long reach and fluid skating style has been headed in the right direction for a while.
"He has really progressed this year," Boucher said. "What I like is that in big games he is really good. He's one of those kids who wants more, and under pressure he seems to be even better."
"I just feel more comfortable managing the puck in my own end and making good outlet passes," Hedman said. "I'm trying to make the simple plays. I just feel more comfortable with what I'm trying to do out there."
The key was finding a balance between Hedman's offensive instincts and his defensive responsibilities; difficult for a player who in his native Sweden was expected to put up points.
"It takes time to figure that out," Tampa Bay defenseman Brett Clark said. "He's picking his spots when he can jump (into the rush). Earlier in the year maybe he'd jump too often and get caught (up ice). He's just coming into his game."
Hedman had three goals (one fewer than his rookie season) and 26 points in 79 games. In the playoffs he has two assists in nine games. Though he is minus-5, he is even in his past four games as he realized that in his first NHL postseason, "You have to bring your 'A' game every night."
He is a mainstay on the penalty kill, his average 22:19 of ice time is second on the team, his 27 blocked shots are third and his five takeaways lead his fellow defensemen.
Does he miss the thrill of an offensive rush?
"Not at all," Hedman said. "I still feel like I'm contributing even if you're not scoring points. You block shots, you're killing penalties, you're still part of the success of the team."
Hedman did flub the clearing attempt that led to Ovechkin's tying Game 2 goal. But he was at a disadvantage.
Having lost his stick, he took one from teammate Adam Hall, also on the ice. Trouble was, Hall shoots right-handed, Hedman left. So, when Hedman tried to clear the puck, he shot forehand with a stick facing backhand.
"The curve was going the other way, and it was a much shorter stick than I was used to," Hedman said. "I tried to hit it as hard as I could, but it stopped at the blue line, and it came back and scored. It was a tough goal to give up."
That Tampa Bay won 3-2 in overtime meant Hedman could laugh at it. That Hedman tied his playoff high with five blocked shots meant Boucher could be philosophical.
"Whatever happened, he's going to look back and see he's gotten better," the coach said. "When his best game was demanded and needed, he gave us that."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]