TAMPA — Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman played nearly half of Wednesday's Game 1, just shy of 30 minutes.
And he loved it.
"It's no secret I want to play more," he said.
Hedman, 25, showed why in a dominating performance in a 3-2 Lightning victory over the Red Wings. The 6-foot-6 Swede was arguably the best player on the ice, doing everything a team expects from a No. 1 defenseman. He saved a goal, sweeping a loose puck from the crease. He thwarted a 2-on-1. He scored what would have been the winner, an absolute rocket of a shot in the third period, negated only because of a coaches challenge and offsides call on Jonathan Drouin.
"Probably the best shot I've had in my life," Hedman quipped.
It looked a lot like the Hedman of last season's playoffs, when he had a Conn Smythe-caliber performance, a force at both ends. And without his injured partner and fellow Swede Anton Stralman (fractured left leg), Hedman wants to elevate his game.
"I don't mind the pressure at all," Hedman said. "I want to be the guy that leads from back there. I don't shy away from that."
Hedman might not play 30 minutes or more each game, like the Blackhawks' Duncan Keith did in last year's Stanley Cup-winning run. During the regular season, Hedman's minutes are managed, from 21-25 (a 23:04 average that's second highest in his career), partly from the fact the Lightning plays seven defensemen often and Hedman wasn't always on the power play.
But now, the limitations are off.
"We didn't overburden (Hedman) during the season," associate coach Rick Bowness said. "I have no worries about playing him as many minutes as he played (Wednesday)."
Hedman has proved he can handle it. There was his stifling of a 2-on-1 early in the third period, aggressively thwarting not one, but two, passes by Andreas Athanasiou to Mike Green. One with his stick, another with his glove. "You just try to make a read, see where his eyes are," Hedman said. "If they are up, or he looks down at the puck, it's more like green light to go."
Lightning television color analyst Brian Engblom, a former Stanley Cup winning defenseman, said he hasn't seen an approach like Hedman's since Chris Chelios.
"The kid never saw that coming," Englblom said. "Nobody plays like that in a 2-on-1. Most guys would have backed up. But he got across and ate him up."
Then came Hedman's non-goal. In the third period, Hedman started a rush and finished it with a blast from the top right circle, beating Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard over his shoulder. "Perfect shot," Bowness said.
"He's just really hard to contain when he's got the engine going," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "It's a big plus for us."
It's the kind of 200-foot game Hedman prides himself on, and hasn't changed since losing his trusted partner in Stralman. Veteran Matt Carle has stepped in and played his best hockey of the season, Bowness said.
"You don't want him trying to be Anton Stralman, you need him to be Victor Hedman," Engblom said. "Because he does a lot of things Stralman can't do. Stralman does it differently, more traditional. Hedman is not a traditional defenseman, which is good, which makes him great."
Hedman had a solid season, his 37 assists leading the Lightning, which dropped from first in scoring to 12th. Hedman's plus-21 rating was the best. But he won't likely be a Norris Trophy finalist.
"He wants to be the best player on the ice," Bowness said. "And he knows that he's never going to be satisfied."
Except for if Hedman lifts the Lightning to a Stanley Cup with another dynamic postseason. Cooper said that as Hedman goes, his team goes.
"In the playoffs, you want to rise your game to another level," Hedman said. "You can tell the intensity and everything is a different ballgame. Nothing is the same. It's going to be a long stretch, lot of ups and downs, but this is the most fun part of the year."
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.