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Is Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman on the verge of an offensive breakout?

The Conn Smythe winner has 10 assists this postseason but isn’t close to his 10 goals in the 2020 playoffs. Still, the fact he’s starting to take more shots is a good sign.
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) takes a shot against the Carolina Hurricanes during the third period of Game 3 at Amalie Arena.
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) takes a shot against the Carolina Hurricanes during the third period of Game 3 at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 3, 2021|Updated Jun. 4, 2021

TAMPA — Despite losing Game 3 of their second-round series to the Hurricanes Thursday night, the Lightning were pleased with what they perceived to be progress on offense.

Veteran defenseman Victor Hedman had his best game of the series offensively. As Tampa Bay cracked Carolina’s pressure with better puck possession and offensive zone time, Hedman recorded seven shot attempts, more he had (six) in the first two games combined.

“We need to get our D more involved in the offensive end, and clearly Heddy is a big part of that,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “And when he’s shooting the puck, it’s a good sign. And for him to be doing that, that means he’s more engaged in the game, he’s probably doing a lot more things on the offensive end and he’s probably joining the rush more, and that always bodes well for us in the end.”

One season after winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP during the Lightning’s Stanley Cup run, Hedman is having a much different — though still productive — postseason offensively.

After amassing 10 goals and 12 assists in 25 games a year ago, he has 10 assists but no goals through nine games this postseason.

Eight of those assists have come on the power play, as Hedman has done a remarkable job of quarterbacking the Lightning’s top unit from the point. He has set up each of his power-play partners — Kucherov, Point, Steven Stamkos and Alex Killorn — for man-advantage goals this postseason.

But Hedman has taken remarkably fewer shots in the process. Going into Saturday’s Game 4, he was averaging just 4.11 attempts per game this postseason, compared to 7.4 in 2020.

Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) takes a shot against the Carolina Hurricanes during the third period of Game 3 Thursday at Amalie Arena.
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) takes a shot against the Carolina Hurricanes during the third period of Game 3 Thursday at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

After Game 3, it appeared that Hedman might be on the verge of a breakout.

Though he had no points in the game, Hedman seemed more willing to join plays in the offensive zone and put more shots on net. He had four shots on goal in the game after just three in the first two games combined, a good sign for the Lightning.

“You’ve got to make those reads, and I had opportunities (Thursday),” Hedman said after Game 3. “You’d like to go back in time and do a little bit better on those chances. I had good legs (Thursday), I felt like, and there were some opportunities. But I liked our compete (level), I liked the way we were doing things in the offensive zone, and we created a lot of chances. So we just keep going and hopefully have a different result next game.”

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What’s uncertain is what Hedman might be playing through physically this postseason. It’s well known that he isn’t 100 percent, and while he hasn’t talked about it, he likely has been playing with an undisclosed injury suffered March 30 against Columbus. How that’s affecting his willingness to jump in offensively is unclear.

Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77), left, and center Brayden Point (21) skate during pregame warmups Thursday at Amalie Arena.
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77), left, and center Brayden Point (21) skate during pregame warmups Thursday at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Carolina’s system relies on tight checking and limiting an opponent’s time or space to create opportunities. The Hurricanes jump on teams quickly and force them to make quick decisions with the puck.

To be sure, Hedman has made some smart plays in the series that have led to goals. In Tuesday’s Game 2 win, his savvy stretch pass sprung center Anthony Cirelli for the game-winning goal. Hedman’s pass to the front of the net in Game 1 set up Point’s redirection for a power-play goal.

But for a player who relishes jumping into the play, Hedman has done little of that this postseason. With the notable exception of the series-clinching win over Florida, he has stayed back more often than not. Thursday’s game was another case where Hedman was more involved offensively. When that happens, Cooper said, it’s a sign that the Lightning are more in sync with each other.

“I just thought as a team we had a plan offensively and we spent a lot more time in their offensive zone,” Cooper said. “We had a lot with a bunch of looks, and he was a part of that.”

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