Some towns know fireworks. Some towns know explosions. Some towns bust the scoreboard.
In Tampa Bay, we know defense.
In Tampa Bay, we believe in the ability to stop the other team. We trust defense. We have seen defense.
In some ways, that is what makes the Tampa Bay Lightning such fun. They are young, and they are fun, and they lead the NHL in goals. When does that happen around here? Not with the Bucs, who have been running in place for years. Not with the Rays, who are still trying to figure out a shortcut to home plate. Not with the Bulls.
Ah, but the Lightning have Tyler Johnson and Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat and Ryan Callahan and all the rest. As offenses go, they know where the sparklers are.
More and more, however, you notice the other side of the Lightning, the guys who skate backwards, the guys who stand between the opponent and the net. More and more, you notice the defense.
Especially Victor Hedman.
He has grown up in front of us, from a gangly 19-year-old kid who was pushed around to a 6-6, 233-pound linebacker of a player who has become one of the top handful of defensemen in the NHL.
Take a key play in Monday night’s game and the New York Rangers, for instance.
It was in the second period, and to all the world, it looked like the Rangers were about the score. It was about to be a 5-4 hockey game. No doubt about it. Goaltender Ben Bishop was behind the net. The puck was in front, and it was on the stick of James Sheppard. All Sheppard had to do was hit a tap-in putt, and the score was about to change.
Then Hedman came charging in, saving the goal and bailing out Tampa Bay.
“Things happen in a game, and we played behind the net there, and Bishop got stuck,” Hedman said Tuesday. “He’s bailed me out so many times through the season, he’s bailed me out a few times, so it was my turn to return the favor.”
One more time, the Lightning’s big-play defenseman had made a difference.
“A go-to guy,” coach Jon Cooper calls him.
There is a dependability to Hedman. He always seems to be on the ice, and he is forever getting between the puck and net.
Go ahead. Talk all you want about the Bolts’ offense. But the defense has held playoff opponents to two goals or less in nine of the team’s last 10 games. In all of the playoffs, they’ve held opponents to two or less in 11 of their 15 games.
That gives a team, especially a high-scoring team, a chance.
We have watched him grow up, watched him fill out. When Hedman first came to town, the second overall pick of the 2009 draft, he was a gangly kid who needed to get stronger. Even in the 2011 Conference Finals, he was finding his way. He has done that.
“There’s a huge difference,” he said. “That was only my second year in
the league and, you know, I was 20 years old. I really didn’t know what to expect, and now I feel like I’ve been here for a long time. I’ve been able to learn from that year, and I feel like I want to take responsibility. I want to be a leader. I want to be a difference maker on the ice.
“Coming into these playoffs that’s kind of the way I approach it and approach the game. You know, play at a high level throughout the playoffs, and even though it’s going to be a lot of ups and downs, you have to stay focused and prepare for the next game. Same goes right now.”
Oh, he handles the puck fairly well, too. Hedman had a nice assist Monday night on a pass to Alex Killorn, and he’s scored 10 goals this season.
Hey, it’s fine to score a lot of goals. It’s fun to watch. But around here, fans know the value of defense. And Hedman is becoming the Lavonte David of the Bolts, the Evan Longoria. If the Lightning can go into Wednesday night’s game believing that the Rangers won’t score many, it makes the task more manageable.
“He’s an unbelievable defensemen,” said Killorn. “Not just on our team, but throughout the league. He’s one of the best defensemen in the league. He brings a ton to us defensively, which might not get him noticed as much as his offensive ability because he scores a ton and gets a lot of assists,
but defensively he’s been very sound for us.”
Oh, there are other defenders that Cooper will praise endlessly. Anton Stralman. Jason Garrison. Braydon Coburn. Andrej Sustr.
More and more, however, this is Hedman’s defense. Still only 24, he is now in the top handful of defensemen in the NHL.
The highlights? They belong to others.
The impact plays? Many are Hedman’s.