Sports

One of the Lightning’s Cornerstones Was Out. The Other Stepped Up.

EDMONTON, Alberta — Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos have played together in Tampa Bay for the last 11 seasons. With Stamkos out for much of this postseason, Hedman stepped up for the Lightning when Stamkos simply couldn’t.

In those 11 seasons, Stamkos won two Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophies as the N.H.L.’s top goal scorer. As he returned from a broken right tibia in March 2014, he was also named team captain, one day after the franchise star Martin St. Louis received his requested trade to the Rangers.

“Someone’s got to replace those goals,” Hedman said during a postgame news conference on Monday, sitting with the Conn Smythe Trophy he had received as the most valuable player of the playoffs to his left and his best friend, Stamkos, to his right.

He added: “I thought about it a lot during the break. What can I improve in my game? That’s shooting the puck, and some of them found the net.”

Ten of his shots found the net, to be exact. That was the most goals by a defenseman in a single postseason in the past 25 years. It was the most goals scored in a single postseason than by any other defensemen except Paul Coffey, who had 12 for the Edmonton Oilers in 1985, or Brian Leetch, who scored 11 for the Rangers in 1994.

Three of Hedman’s 10 goals were game-winners. He scored in Game 3 of the first round against Columbus, giving the Lightning a two-games-to-one lead in the series.

Next, there was the double-overtime winner in Game 5 of the second round that eliminated the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins and gave the Lightning a week of rest before the Eastern Conference finals.

And then there was his dagger on the power play early in the second period of Game 3 against Dallas, lifting the Lightning’s confidence as they took a two-games-to-one lead in that series.

The only series in which Hedman didn’t log a game-winner was the Eastern Conference finals, yet that was probably the series in which he secured most of his Conn Smythe votes. In one of the narrowest wins since the Professional Hockey Writers Association began voting on the award, Hedman beat out his teammate Brayden Point by just four points.

ImageHedman had three game-winning goals in the playoffs, including the series-clinching score in the second round against Boston.
Credit…Elsa/Getty Images

Point left Game 2 of the series against the Islanders early in the second period, apparently injured, and then missed Games 3 and 5. Hedman helped fill the void, chipping in four goals and two assists and playing solid defense against a disciplined team that pushed hard before being eliminated in six games.

George Gwozdecky, a former Lightning assistant coach, said he believed Rick Bowness, who stood behind the opposing bench in the Stanley Cup finals, might have had the most instrumental role in Hedman’s development into one of the N.H.L.’s elite defensive talents: a Norris Trophy winner in 2018, a finalist for the past four seasons and now the winner of a Conn Smythe Trophy and a Stanley Cup.

Before he joined the Stars as an assistant coach at the beginning of the 2018-19 season and then stepped up to become the team’s interim head coach last December, Bowness spent five seasons running the defense for the Lightning, working closely with Hedman.

“Prior to 2015, some questioned how good he could be, how much stronger he’d get, whether he was a flash in the pan, whether he can really be a leader,” Gwozdecky said. “Rick helped Victor put the finishing touches on his game and helped him get over the top and turn into the elite player he is now.”

He added: “With Stamkos out, he became a leader on and off the ice, without a doubt. But on the ice, he’d been asked to give a little more and contribute a little more, especially in the series against the Islanders, and the way he responded has been pretty impressive.”

Born just 10 months apart in 1990 and drafted a year apart in 2008 and 2009, Stamkos and Hedman grew together from teenagers into men. The supporting cast around them improved under the stewardship of Jeff Vinik, who purchased the team in 2010, and the steady hands of Coach Jon Cooper and General Manager Steve Yzerman and then his protégé, Julien BriseBois.

As the 2010s wore on, the Lightning became consistent threats to challenge for a championship but couldn’t get over the hump.

Stamkos and Hedman’s first playoff experience came to a heartbreaking end in a 1-0 loss in Game 7 of the 2011 Eastern Conference finals to the eventual champions, the Boston Bruins.

In 2015, the Lightning took a two-games-to-one lead over the Chicago Blackhawks in the finals and then lost three straight.

Two of the next three seasons also ended in Game 7 of the conference finals, with losses to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and the Washington Capitals in 2018. Both opponents went on to lift the Cup.

During the summer of 2016, when Stamkos had the opportunity for a change of scenery as an unrestricted free agent, he explored all of his options before re-signing with the Lightning for the eight-year maximum. Two days after Stamkos announced his decision, Hedman also re-signed for eight years, on the first day he was allowed to do so. They were determined to pursue the championship together.

Does it hurt more to get close? Or is it worse not to get a chance at all? That was the question Tampa Bay faced in 2018-19, after its 128-point regular season fizzled out in four games against Columbus.

Would that series have been different if Hedman had been healthy? He had missed the final four games of the regular season with an injury and was then largely ineffective in the first two playoff games against the Blue Jackets before being sidelined for Games 3 and 4.

And how close did the Lightning come to facing the same nightmare this summer? They were already dealing with the injury to Stamkos, who was originally expected to be sidelined for six to eight weeks after having surgery for a core muscle injury in March.

As the Lightning convened for training camp in July before the N.H.L.’s playoff restart, word came out that Stamkos had experienced a setback. He stuck with his teammates in the league’s bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton for more than nine weeks and played a brief but memorable 2 minutes 47 seconds in Game 3 of the finals before he was finally ruled out for good one day before the Lightning clinched the title.

Hedman also looked as if he could have been sidelined early on. On Aug. 8, he left in the first period of the Lightning’s final round-robin game against the Philadelphia Flyers, displaying pain and frustration after appearing to twist his ankle.

Credit…Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Three days later, he was back in action for Game 1 of the first round against the Blue Jackets. He skated for an incredible 57:38 in the Lightning’s five-overtime win. There would be no disappointment this year.

On Monday night in Edmonton, with their team holding a 2-0 lead as the final minutes of the third period ticked down, Stamkos and the Lightning’s other scratches hastily scrambled into their equipment. After the grind of more than two months of isolation in the N.H.L.’s postseason bubbles — and a decade of knocking at the door of a championship — there was no way Stamkos was going to miss his opportunity to accept the Stanley Cup from Commissioner Gary Bettman and then pass it first to his best friend.

“I think I told him I loved him 100 times,” Stamkos said of that moment with Hedman. “What can you say? We’ve been together since Day 1, and to go through all the ups and downs, this is what you play for.”

He continued: “To watch Heddy win that Conn Smythe, to be the best player in the world in the playoffs, and to watch our relationship grow to where it is today, it’s just love and admiration. This is one of the best feelings in the world, and I’m so thankful that I get to share this moment with Heddy.”

Hedman hails from Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, a town of about 30,000 that is inordinately rich in hockey talent — and is also the birthplace of former N.H.L. greats like Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund and Daniel and Henrik Sedin.

Forsberg won two Stanley Cups. The others did not win any. Now Hedman has.

“I never in my dreams thought that I would win the Stanley Cup,” he said on Monday. “It’s so unrealistic. It’s what you dream of when you play on the streets back home when you grow up. It’s what you imagine all the time.”

Never could Hedman have imagined that his dream would come true in an arena without fans, without family members, in the midst of a pandemic, after having been locked down with his teammates for more than two months.

“It’s been a grind,” he said. “It hasn’t been easy. Well worth it now, for sure — that’s the bottom line. We’re Stanley Cup champs, and we’re going to be Stanley Cup champs forever.”

Gary Santaniello contributed reporting.

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