TAMPA — It’s pretty easy to see there’s a little something extra in Victor Hedman’s step these days.
Coming off a season in which he played through pain in his left knee for more than four months, the Lightning defenseman opted to postpone surgery to repair a torn meniscus in order to help Tampa Bay win a second straight Stanley Cup.
Now recovered from offseason surgery, it appears as if the old Hedman is back.
“It’s just a credit to Victor and what he gave us hurt last year,” assistant coach Derek Lalonde said. “He literally had that surgery the day after we won. He wasn’t 100 percent; now you’re seeing he’s 100 percent.”
Hedman played his first preseason game Friday in the Lightning’s 8-5 win over the Hurricanes. Hedman called himself “rusty” while playing a team-high 23:42, which included a heavy load on the power play and penalty kill.
But for Hedman, it’s a welcome change. He can concentrate on getting ready for the season instead of focusing on how to get through each game.
“It’s good to have full health and two working knees,” Hedman said. “I feel like I’m striving obviously towards coming back to top level. I put the pressure on myself to try and get better and better. (Friday night) … it was good to get a game under my feet.”
Hedman is the first to say he wasn’t at his best trying to play through the injury. Before he fell to the ice during a March 30 game against Columbus, he was having a tremendous season, averaging almost a point per game with six goals and 27 assists in 33 contests. He was plus-15 and averaging 25:31 of ice time.
Hedman had to learn how to manage his injury, but he wasn’t the same player.
He could play knowing he wasn’t going to damage the meniscus more, but he endured constant pain. In the first two rounds of the postseason, he stayed back more than normal, protecting himself from getting beaten in transition against fast-skating Florida and Carolina. He struggled with his shot, shooting just 3.6 percent, but still had two goals and 16 assists in the postseason.
“Was he 75 percent? Was he only 60 percent? I don’t know. He’ll never tell us,” Lightning TV analyst Brian Engblom said. “He adapted his game, and we didn’t see that offensive flair. But it’s pretty amazing what he did. To see him now flying around, it’s just free. There’s a free spirit to a great player’s game that when you’re banged up, that’s the first thing that goes away, and you play with your head more, and you know your limits, how to be effective, or when to be effective, and you measure yourself in those situations.
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“You control the game as best you can instead of controlling the game virtually every shift that you’re out there, which Victor is capable of doing. … It’s great to see Victor just moving around so freely out there, roaming around and taking advantage of all the great skills that he has. It’s fun again. When you’re injured, it’s not fun.”
In practices, it’s clear Hedman no longer is ailing. On Friday, he was quick up and down the ice, laying out a check behind the net in the offensive zone and making a full-extension dive to try to stop a puck in the defensive zone.
As the Lightning approach the season opener Oct. 12 against the Penguins, Hedman will continue to knock off that rust.
“I like the progress,” he said. “I keep taking steps it feels like every day.”
“He’s moving great,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “He always seems to show up and from Day One, just be flying at top speed. It’s a good sign for us that there’s not any lasting long-term effects from what he went through. It’s going to be another big year for ‘Heddy,’ that’s for sure.”
Hedman wants every rep he can get. Lalonde said during one recent practice, Hedman was part of a group that was short two defensemen and he took all the extra reps.
“He didn’t complain or say boo once,” Lalonde said. “He wanted every rep and then some. Obviously, he’s a special player, but he’s earned being that special player with his approach on these type of days. It’s been really good to see him healthy.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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