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Lightning's Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman anchor Sweden's defense at World Cup

Sweden's Victor Hedman, center, celebrates his goal with teammates Anton Stralman, right, and Carl Hagelin against Russia during second period World Cup of Hockey action in Toronto, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016. (Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP) MDB07

Sweden's Victor Hedman, center, celebrates his goal with teammates Anton Stralman, right, and Carl Hagelin against Russia during second period World Cup of Hockey action in Toronto, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016. (Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP) MDB07

TORONTO — Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman are nearly inseparable on the ice, the two Swedes anchoring the Lightning's top defensive pairing the past couple seasons.

So it is fitting that Hedman and Stralman, partners again for Sweden in the World Cup of Hockey, have adjacent rooms in their Toronto hotel.

Stralman, 30, took advantage of that Sunday morning, popping by to razz Hedman, 25, a huge Manchester United soccer fan, for the club's 3-1 loss to Watford.

"That fueled my energy for this game," Hedman said with a grin.

It worked wonders. Hedman had a monster 22-minute performance, including scoring what turned out to be the game-winner, to lift Sweden to a 2-1 victory over Russia in their tournament opener at the Air Canada Center.

"It's an unreal feeling," Hedman said.

It's one Hedman has never had before. Having been snubbed by Sweden for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Hedman, like Stralman, is relishing his first chance at best-on-best hockey on the biggest stage; Hedman last wore his country's jersey at the 2012 world championships, Stralman at the 2009 worlds.

"It's always been my biggest dream, to represent my country," Stralman said.

The two are key cogs on a loaded blueline, which shut out the high-powered Russians for 59 minutes, 33 seconds Sunday. That kind of defense is why the Swedes are considered formidable championship contenders, even against the heavily favored Canadians.

It was Stralman who helped thwart Alex Ovechkin's tying goal with seven seconds left. Ovechkin, who had pulled Russia to within 2-1 with 33 seconds to go, swatted a loose puck with his glove near the left post. But Stralman managed to impede Ovechkin enough so this generation's top scorer couldn't get his stick on the puck before it went in. The goal was overturned by review. "I wasn't worried," Stralman said.

Stralman is feeling, and looking, like his old self. He admits he wasn't at his best in the Stanley Cup playoffs, when he returned from a broken leg for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final. Stralman was a minus-two in six games as the Lightning lost in seven to the Penguins.

"My leg was still broken," Stralman said. "It wasn't great. It was solid enough to play with, but it's always hard. You miss two months and jump into a conference finals, it's not an easy task. Given the circumstances, I gave it all I had."

The Lightning gave Hedman an eight-year, $63 million extension July 1. The 6-foot-6 Swede wasted no time in signing the first day he was eligible, one year removed from unrestricted free agency. Hedman, unlike fellow franchise cornerstone Steven Stamkos, won't have to deal with lingering contract questions this season. That kind of peace of mind should help Hedman propel even further into the conversation as one of the league's top defensemen; he was sixth in the Norris Trophy voting last season.

Sunday provided yet another reminder why.

"Hedman is as horse, you saw it (Sunday)," Sweden coach Rickard Gronborg said. "He played all kind of situations, and now I know why he's so highly regarded. I knew that before, but now he's proven to everyone back at home in Sweden that this is how good he is."

Contact Joe Smith at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

Lightning's Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman anchor Sweden's defense at World Cup 09/18/16 [Last modified: Sunday, September 18, 2016 9:26pm]
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