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Lightning relieved to see Victor Hedman back for playoffs. The feeling is mutual.

One of fans’ worst fears has been neutralized as the defending Norris Trophy winner is back.
Lightning defensemen Victor Hedman returned to practice Monday at the Brandon Ice Sports Forum. [MARI FAIELLO | Times]
Lightning defensemen Victor Hedman returned to practice Monday at the Brandon Ice Sports Forum. [MARI FAIELLO | Times]
Published Apr. 8, 2019
Updated Apr. 9, 2019

BRANDON — Whew. Breathe a sigh of relief. Victor Hedman is back on the ice.

The postseason is underway and the Lightning has its defending Norris Trophy winner. Hedman rejoined the Lightning at Monday’s practice.

As much as the Lightning missed him — the power play scored only twice with Hedman out of the lineup — he missed the Lightning. Hedman entered the team facility in Brandon with a big greeting, “Aw boys, I missed you.”

As players took the ice for power-play work before practice started, Hedman took a couple laps with J.T. Miller and Steven Stamkos to warm up and then got down to business.

The team did not make Hedman available to the media Monday, but Alex Killorn called it “a huge sigh of relief.” Stamkos, however, wasn’t, worried.

“I think we knew he was going to be fine come playoff time,” he said. “You want to make sure your big boy is well-rested and feeling great and it was great to see him out there. He'll be ready.”

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Hedman took an inadvertent head butt to the chin from Carl Hagelin while delivering a hit along the boards in the March 30 home and left after the first period. He didn’t make the final road trip with the team, missing the last 14 periods of the regular season.

But now the man who Stamkos called the best defenseman in the league is back to play with the top pairing, run the point for the league’s best power play unit and star on the penalty kill.

“I thought he looked great,” Jon Cooper said. “Just the mere fact of having him out there was nice. Hadn’t been out on the ice with the team for a while and it’s looking encouraging.”

Hedman had been skating on his own, but that’s not the same. For one, it’s conditioning, not hockey. For two, it’s kind of boring – Braydon Coburn pointed out staying behind during a road trip can make you feel lost, hence the big greeting.

The Lightning and its fans, many in attendance because Hillsborough County students had a day off from school, saw Hedman take a full practice. No non-contact jersey, no partial practice. He practiced.

As much as Hedman has an impact on the ice, the Lightning managed without him before. In October and November, Tampa Bay went 5-2 during an extended period without Hedman, including a win against the playoff-bound New York Islanders. It also notched a win against Philadelphia without him in February.

Still, with Hedman serving as a key special teams member, they don’t want to be without him. During this latest absence, the penalty kill stayed solid (10-of-13), but the power play faltered, scoring only twice out of nine opportunities.

Injuries are the biggest unknown of the playoffs. The Lightning isn’t fully healthy, but getting Hedman back will be a big step.

The blue line is filling back out. Anton Strålman suffered a setback but could potentially practice Tuesday. Dan Girardi played on Saturday, his first game in a month. Hedman returned Monday.

On the rest of the ice, Louis Domingue practiced on Monday. Ryan Callahan was missing after leaving Saturday’s game in the first period, but Cooper expects him back on Tuesday.

That’s a relatively healthy team for the end of the regular season, and Hedman’s readiness stands as the biggest piece.

Whew.

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at dnearhos@tampabay.com. Follow @dianacnearhos.