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At midseason mark, Lightning’s Victor Hedman making another strong case for Norris Trophy

He’s long been one of the NHL’s best two-way defensemen. But performances like Tuesday show why he’s on another level.
Victor Hedman has been a Norris finalist, given to the league’s top defenseman, for five straight years. He will probably make it six in a few months.
Victor Hedman has been a Norris finalist, given to the league’s top defenseman, for five straight years. He will probably make it six in a few months. [ MATT SLOCUM | AP ]
Published Jan. 20|Updated Jan. 21

TAMPA — With the Lightning at the midway point of their regular season, defenseman Victor Hedman is in a familiar place: the middle of the Norris Trophy conversation.

Hedman has been a finalist for the Norris, given to the league’s top defenseman, for five straight years; he won the award in 2017-18. He will probably make it six straight years as a finalist in a few months.

“When you’re filling out those ballots, he should be on it every year,” coach Jon Cooper said following the Lightning’s 6-4 win over the Kings on Tuesday in Los Angeles.

Games like Tuesday’s are a reminder of why Hedman remains among the elite at the position.

With the Lightning forced to play with just four defensemen because of injuries and salary-cap constraints that prevented them from calling up a replacement, Hedman embraced the challenge. He played more than half the game — 32:18, a career high for a regulation game — and had two goals and an assist.

After the game, he talked about how it was difficult for him to take his pregame nap because he was so excited to play.

Victor Hedman celebrates his goal during the third period of Tuesday's game in Los Angeles.
Victor Hedman celebrates his goal during the third period of Tuesday's game in Los Angeles. [ MARK J. TERRILL | AP ]

“It was a challenge in itself,” Hedman said. “And in an 82-game season, you need those challenges. It was something different, something exciting.”

Hedman had to elevate his game in a different way. When more is needed from him, he’s quick to provide offense. But Tuesday, he had to play with extra discipline.

It was important that the Lightning kept getting the puck deep, to resist the temptation to make extra passes, so that the defense could make changes. And they couldn’t take penalties, so they had to be careful with their physicality, positioning and stickwork.

It was Hedman who pressured Kings forward Anze Kopitar around the back of the Lightning net 13 minutes into the game. And when Kopitar made a sloppy pass at the blue line, Hedman jumped on the loose puck in the neutral zone and created a breakaway for himself, burying a wrist shot for the Lightning’s first goal.

“We were playing pretty well there, limiting the shots against, but we didn’t generate a lot,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “Just probably playing a little bit high percentage and conservative, and obviously, ‘Heddy’ just reads the game so well, finds a bouncing puck and just took off and finished it off on the breakaway.

“So (he) definitely just gave us some confidence there early in the game. He just led the way, for sure.”

After the Lightning fell behind 2-1 in the second period, Hedman kept a play alive on a power play by using his stick to calmly knock forward Nikita Kucherov’s wild pass out of the air, then fed Kucherov for a one-timer.

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With the score tied at 3 midway through the third, Kucherov returned the favor with a backhand pass to Hedman skating to the slot, setting up the defenseman’s second goal of the game.

Hedman was asked whether he had played a better game. He smiled and said, “Hopefully I have.”

“What else can you ask for?” forward Corey Perry said. “That’s a leader. That’s a guy that understands he’s got to put a team on his back and go out and do it. And he did that.

“That’s why he is up for Norris every single year. He just keeps coming, and it’s fun to watch. He’s a horse.”

Victor Hedman (77) celebrates the first of his two goals during a game against the Blues in December in Tampa.
Victor Hedman (77) celebrates the first of his two goals during a game against the Blues in December in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The NHL has a few elite two-way defensemen, also including the Predators’ Roman Josi, the Avalanche’s Cale Makar and last year’s Norris Trophy winner, the Rangers’ Adam Fox. Hedman entered Thursday night’s games leading all defensemen with 43 points. He was second in assists (34) and minutes played (1,032), and in point shares (6.8), a metric that combines offensive and defensive play.

But it’s Hedman’s ability to step up when needed most that makes him stand out.

He had a similar game to Tuesday’s last month. The Lightning were coming off a frustrating loss in St. Louis, a game in which they blew a three-goal lead. Two days later, facing St. Louis at home, Hedman fumed in the penalty box as the Blues tied the score following a penalty he didn’t believe he committed. He exited the box and scored two goals in the final minutes to lead the Lightning to a 4-2 win.

“There’s guys that rise to the challenge, and there’s guys that don’t,” Cooper said. “And I’ve been here a long time now with (Hedman), and whether it was a game like (Tuesday’s) or whether it was the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs (Hedman won the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP), whatever you want to say, he just finds a way to rise to the occasion.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.

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