WINNIPEG, Manitoba — It was as if Victor Hedman never left.
The Lightning defenseman returned Tuesday from a lower body injury that was supposed to keep him out at least three weeks and possible six. He didn't even reach the three-week threshold, rejoining the lineup two days before the three-week anniversary of the injury.
Not that his teammates expected anything else.
"He's a guy that you can't replace," Tyler Johnson said.
Hedman looked his usual self, skating a team-high 25 minutes over a team-high 26 shifts in the Lightning's 3-1 loss to the Jets at the Bell MTS Place. He played on the power play and killed penalties.
Some of that ice time was because defenseman Dan Girardi left the game for a time in the first period. The rest was because Hedman is Hedman.
He said after the morning skate, which he fully participated in, that he would not play Tuesday if he didn't feel he was 100 percent capable of contributing to the team. He said it would be a game-time decision.
"Being ready to play is one thing. It's about being able to contribute on the ice," he said. "I got to make sure I feel 100 percent before that."
The game-time decision was go.
There was no easing his way back into the swing of things.
"No, not at all," Hedman said. "I want to be out there and contribute in the way I play. It wasn't the quality minutes tonight. It was good to get those minutes onto my legs. I expect better out of myself. I'm going to be a little rusty after two weeks, I know that, but I have high expectations. I put pressure on myself to be good every night. I wasn't up to my standard tonight."
Lightning coach Jon Cooper was encouraged by watching Hedman participate in the morning skate without a red "no-contact" jersey. Hedman was paired with his partner Jake Dotchin on the top defensive line and joined the puck battle drills at the end of the practice.
When asked if he was surprised Hedman returned two days ahead of schedule, Cooper said, "I'm not a doctor. I sit there and listen to what they tell me. We're just glad he came back, that's for sure."
Hedman is one of the top defensemen in the league. He's certainly the best the Lightning have to offer.
Hedman leads the Lightning in ice time with an average of 25 minutes, 36 seconds per game. He plays on the power play and the penalty kill, the first one over the boards on both special teams units, Cooper said.
"The big thing is he's always playing against usually the top lines of the other teams, and somebody has to step up to do that, so it's tough (without him)," Cooper said. "It's one thing to lose a forward. There are 11 other guys who can step in there and kind of mask that, but when you start losing defensemen, just the amount of minutes they play, it's tough. He's been a guy that's meant so much to us."
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Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn, Dan Girardi, Slater Koekkoek and Dotchin. Meanwhile, Andrej Sustr went from being a healthy scratch candidate to averaging more than 15 minutes during his last four games.
The Lightning dropped its first two games without Hedman (it lost the night he was injured, too), but bounced back with wins in the three games heading into last weekend's All-Star break.
"You collectively have to play better D," Cooper said. "We were fortunate to get through some of these games without him, but we're definitely a better team with him."