Victor Hedman made a move that happens countless times in a game. And it may cost him a chance to start the playoffs with the Lightning.
The star defenseman left Saturday’s 4-1 round-robin loss to the Flyers in Toronto that gave Philadelphia the top seed for the Eastern Conference playoffs. Hedman appeared to injure his right ankle in the first period and didn’t return.
His frustration was obvious. If the pain on Hedman’s face wasn’t clear enough, smashing his stick against the wall as he made his way down the tunnel to the locker room made his feelings apparent.
“When Victor, your perennial Norris Trophy finalist every year, is out that creates a hole,” coach Jon Cooper said. “But we’ve dealt with injuries before — our captain (Steven Stamkos) is out; he’s been out for a long time (since core muscle surgery in March) — and it’s a little frustrating because we feel like we’re going in the right direction and then to lose some of the star power we have.”
The Lightning didn’t have Hedman in full form at the end of last season, either. He missed the final games of the regular season, then didn’t look like himself in the first two games of the playoffs before leaving the lineup again as the Lightning was swept by the Blue Jackets in the first round.
On his fourth shift of the game Saturday, Hedman pivoted from skating forward to backward, to keep up with Flyers forward Tyler Pitlick entering the Lightning zone. It’s an innocuous move. There was nothing obviously different about this time.
But his skate appeared to catch on the ice and his right ankle twisted, taking the brunt of Hedman’s 229 pounds.
He took an extra couple of seconds to get up before heading to the bench. During the TV timeout a few minutes later, Hedman got on the ice briefly to test the ankle. He returned to the bench, grimacing as he tried to put weight on the leg.
Grimace might not be a strong-enough word for the expression of pain on Hedman’s face as he spoke with athletic trainers Tom Mulligan and Mikey Poirier.
Poirier and Hedman left the bench for the locker room at Scotiabank Arena, Hedman pausing along the way to give his stick three strong whacks.
If Hedman’s injury is a sprain, he could take weeks to recover. Speaking earlier in the week about Ondrej Palat’s high ankle sprain last season, Cooper said he considered the standard “four to six weeks” to be more like “four to six months” for full recovery.
The size of the hole Hedman’s absence leaves in the lineup is obvious. His status as a finalist for the Norris Trophy, given to the defenseman of the year, for the third straight season gives some indication.
“If he can’t start the playoffs, it really creates urgency to tighten up their team game,” Lightning play-by-play broadcaster Rick Peckham told the Tampa Bay Times. “No freewheeling Norris Trophy winner to control play all over the ice. Forwards have to support the play consistently. Bear down on special teams to maximize key situations.”
Hedman averages almost four more minutes a game than anyone else on the roster, in part because he plays in all situations.
“It’s a tough, tough job to fill, but we have to do it collectively,” defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “It’s not just going to be one person coming in and and trying to emulate Victor Hedman.”
Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak are the shutdown pair that often takes on an opponent’s top line, but Hedman is the one that sets the tone. He spurs the offense and the defensive side of the game, quarterbacks the power play.
Players can step into each of those roles — McDonagh and Cernak likely would become the top pair; Braydon Coburn or Luke Schenn could return to the lineup; Mikhail Sergachev can play on the first power-play unit — but the question is if they could collectively add up to what Hedman can do.
“Right now, it looks like Victor Hedman is in a lot of trouble,” NBC analyst Keith Jones said on an intermission report of the network’s broadcast of the game. “You go up against Toronto or Columbus without Victor Hedman or Steven Stamkos and you’re in a world of hurt.”
With the loss giving the Lightning the No. 2 seed in the East, their first-round playoff opponent will be the winner of the Blue Jackets-Maple Leafs series, which will be decided today in Game 5 of their best-of-five qualifier series (8 p.m., NBCSN).
Stamkos’ availability to start the playoffs also is unclear. During voluntary workouts before training camp last month, he incurred an injury connected to his recovery from the core muscle surgery and didn’t play in any of the three round-robin games.
While the Lightning have other talented forwards who can help fill the hole Stamkos leaves — and Mitchell Stephens has stepped up, granted a spot in Stamkos’ absence — Hedman’s breadth of impact is harder to replace.
“Last year, we saw what happens when Hedman is out of the lineup against Columbus,” Jones said.