Victor Hedman returned ahead of schedule for Lightning

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If Victor Hedman‘s recovery fell on the long end, he could have missed as many as six weeks. Instead, he only missed five games for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

He actually beat the three weeks that was considered the low end of that three-to-six week window, playing for Tampa Bay in a 3-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday. While he didn’t turn the tide for Tampa Bay, he wasn’t a negative presence, either.

Hedman actually logged exactly 25 minutes of ice time in that return. That’s impressive, although head coach Jon Cooper admits that it wasn’t exactly the blueprint, as NHL.com’s Tim Campbell reports.

“[Hedman] is our best defenseman and he probably had to play more minutes than we had planned,” Cooper said. “So we basically had to play the whole first period with five defensemen. But he’s missed three weeks, so it takes a little time to get back in the game. For missing that long, he’s a big part of our team, but he was fine tonight.”

(Dan Girardi was a little banged up in this game, hence the Lightning being limited to “five defensmen.”)

After losing their first two games without Hedman, the Lightning managed a three-game winning streak to cap off his absence heading into the All-Star break. Anton Stralman and Jake Dotchin served as the Lightning’s top pairing with Hedman out, while the big Swede replaced Stralman upon his return. Beyond Hedman’s superlative talent, the Lightning simply piece things together more reasonably with him in the lineup, as Hedman can prop up a player still learning to make it in the NHL in Dotchin while Stralman can provide similar guidance to Mikhail Sergachev (who, for all of his offensive accomplishments, had been a recent healthy scratch).

Generally speaking, the Lightning have been handling the challenges of a lot of road games and Hedman’s injury quite well. They still must weather some storms, though.

They played their last five games on the road, with the All-Star break providing a handy palate cleanser. Even so, they play three more games on this current trip, along with five of their next seven, and eight of their next 12 contests on the road.

Such a stretch might make it tough to totally hold off the red-hot Boston Bruins, who are making a somewhat surprising push for the Atlantic title.

On the other hand, this could be a helpful test for the Lightning. It gives Hedman some time to work his way back to full strength with the playoffs not that far away, and gives a dominant team some experience dealing with adversity during a season where they’ve largely rolled over competition.

Considering that a typical playoff series lasts no longer than two weeks, it’s likely helpful for a team to deal with injuries and other forms of bad luck now rather than trying to shake off those haymakers for the first time during the most important games of the year.

The Lightning now know that they can at least keep their heads above water without Hedman, even if they also realize just how crucial he is.

That said, maybe this is another push for management to add some useful depth to this defense at the trade deadline? Even a team as loaded as the Lightning could use a little help, at least with a Stanley Cup as the ultimate barometer for success in their case.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.