By Larry Wigge
Goaltender Ben Bishop was in the catbird seat. He could hear Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman shouting at one another and could see their skillful solution take shape just before his eyes.
Stamkos to Hedman back to Stamkos and over to Ondrei Palat for a tip in of a 3-on-1 in overtime of Tampa Bay's 4-3 victory over Winnipeg.
"Watching Victor Hedman on that play was like seeing Chris Pronger in his heyday, when I was a kid growing up in St. Louis," gushed Bishop.
Pronger takes his brilliant career into the Hockey Hall of Fame with him later this month.
Now, cunningly similar, Hedman a 6-6, 233-pound defenseman from Ornskoldsvik, Sweden. He was the second overall pick in 2009 NHL Entry Draft -- remarkably similar to Pronger being the second pick in 1993 to Alexandre Daigle.
On this night against the Jets, Hedman had three assists, giving him nine assists for the first seven games.
"He's the kind of defenseman that every team needs and wants," Palat said afterward. "He's got a big body and he can skate. He's just an overall great player."
Hedman came into his own in 2013-14, scoring a career high in goals and points with 13 goals and 42 assists. He emerged as force last season, leading the Lightning to the Stanley Cup finals against the Chicago Black Hawks.
"I want to be a leader. I want to be a difference maker on the ice," Hedman said. "That's kind of the way I approach it and approached the game in last year's playoffs.
"I felt confident on both ends of the ice."
"I don't think you get to this part of the season without having a top, elite-tier defenseman," Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. "And he is that for us.
"He plays the whole 200 feet. He's blessed with the size, the skill, the speed."
Defense wins championships in the NHL.
Nicklas Lidstrom won with Detroit, Ray Bourque with Colorado and Scott Niedermayer in Anaheim in recent years it's become cliche with Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrooke and Niklas Hjalmarsson in Chicago, Drew Doughty in Los Angeles and Zdeno Chara in Boston.
Ornskoldsvik? The town of 25,000 in northern Sweden has produced star hockey players like Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund and twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Anders Hedberg, Sammuel Pahlsson come from.
Olle Hedman, Victor's dad, jokes it's "It's something in the water."
Olle still works at the big paper mill. His mom Elisabeth is a pre-school teacher. They religiously watch every Lightning game on TV despite how the time difference mangles sleep patterns.
"It usually starts about 2 o'clock in the morning," said Olle. "I go up to bed at half past 4 and sleep until 7."
"In the Montreal series, they went double overtime, and I had to leave for work before it was over," Olle chuckled.
"My mom and dad never pushed me," said Hedman. "They said 'just follow your dreams and do whatever you want,' pretty much."
Ironically, Victor started out as a goaltender. He would take shots against his brothers in the family's basement according to his day, which always resulted in Hedman running away crying.
One promise Victor made to Olle was that he would quit stopping pucks.
So, Hedman began his career as a defenseman. But ... a six-inch growth spurt posed problems that his body couldn't keep up.
"I was tall and skinny and had trouble with co-ordination," laughed Hedman. "I had to train a lot when I was younger to get control of my body and learn to skate well.
"Now, every summer, I try to get better and faster. But when I was 13 or 14, things just fell into place."
Even in the summer months, Hedman is working. "I can't take any days off with that, because I need to keep improving."
When he got to the NHL, it was revealed that he would wear number 77 on his jersey, in honour of Ray Bourque who was one of his favourite defensemen, along with Nicklas Lidstrom, growing up.
The growth spurt forced him to focus on improving his skating and he's now arguably the most mobile 6-foot-6 defenseman in the NHL.
"He's one guy on the ice that could ice the puck and beat it out himself," said Cooper. "He can lead the rush and be the first guy back. It's just this explosiveness.
"It's like shooting him out of a cannon."
Steven Stamkos, first overall pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, says that trying to fit into the NHL as a defenseman is twice as hard.
"He was kind of thrown into the fire," said Stamkos. "Victor's matured as a player, matured as a person. You see the confidence that he has now. He steps up in all big moments."
Which leads up to his play vs. Lidstrom, the seven-time Norris Trophy winner.
"Victor's offensive skills and his speed have been impressive," Lidstrom said in an e-mail. "It seems like he's been carrying the puck up the ice and making plays.
"He's got great feet and it's hard to stop him when he's coming with that speed. I've seen on more than a couple of occasions when he's jumping up in the play. He pushes the other team to back off with his speed."
The look on Hedman's face ... was one of wonderment.
Said Victor: "He made everything look so easy. So calm with the puck. His head up all the time. He made those hard plays look so easy. He won four Cups, Norris Trophies, everything."
But the best advice Hedman has gotten. It came from Forsberg.
Forsberg told Hedman, "Play with passion. Play to win. The killer instinct."
The new model of Hedman, playing with a passion and killer instinct is on stage every night.
"People are starting to see Victor on a world stage now," said Stamkos. "But in this room, we knew he was that player all along. It takes time in this league.
"He's been an absolute beast for us out there. Very rarely do you see the combination of size and speed and smarts."
And very rarely do you see Victor Hedman rushing up the ice on a 3-on-1 for the winning goal.