‘It took him a few years, but Victor Hedman’s arrived’

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CHICAGO — Those who’ve been watching closely know Victor Hedman’s been among the NHL’s elite defensemen for a little while now.

Those who haven’t been watching closely, well, those people sure know now.

Hedman was brilliant in Tampa Bay’s 3-2 victory over the Blackhawks, on center stage in the Stanley Cup Final.

The 24-year-old’s excellence included a mighty assist on the game’s winning goal, when, with just over three minutes remaining in regulation, he picked up the puck at his own blue line, rushed his giant frame through the neutral zone, went wide on Brent Seabrook and used his reach to sling a perfect pass to Cedric Paquette, who directed it into the Chicago net.

“I said to him after the game, ‘How do you find those plays, man?'” said his defensive partner, Anton Stralman. “He’s very optimistic in that way. Likes to join the rush, usually makes really good reads, when to go, when not to go.”

Hedman was drafted second overall in 2009, right after John Tavares. He jumped into the NHL right away, but not with the spectacular results that some rookies have enjoyed.

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos is the only player on the current roster that was on that 2009-10 team with Hedman.

“It’s tough to come into the league as an 18-year-old defenseman. I think that’s the toughest position to be put in,” said Stamkos. “Especially in the position that we were in. We weren’t a great team. He was getting some minutes against some quality competition, and our team was struggling. He was kind of thrown into the fire. He’s matured as a player, matured as a person. You see the confidence that he has now. He steps up in all big moments.”

“Hedman, what he’s doing, I mean, this is clearly his coming-out party,” added Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper.

On top of the pass that Hedman made on the winning goal, he also set up Ryan Callahan’s first-period rocket past Corey Crawford, on one of the longest bombs you’ll ever see in a hockey game.

“We were pressured in the zone a little bit and trying to calm the play down a little bit,” Hedman explained. “I wasn’t going to give it to him. I saw their d-man fell. Tried to put it there. He made a good catch on his backhand. It was a hell of a shot. That was obviously a big goal. We probably got a little lucky that their d-man went down.”

Perhaps, but there was no luck in the second period when Hedman made arguably an even better pass, sending the puck high off the glass to give Nikita Kucherov a breakaway.

“Words can’t describe the force that he’s been out there for our team,” said Stamkos. “We’ve known how good he is all along.”

“Just the plays he makes, it’s fun to watch,” said Cooper. “He’s really grown into that role. It took him a few years, but Victor Hedman’s arrived.”

Related: Hanifin feels he has NHL ‘mindset,’ but won’t be ‘mad’ if he goes back to college