Hedman is X-factor for Lightning against Blackhawks in Stanley Cup final

CHICAGO — Anton Stralman witnessed Victor Hedman fire a 120-foot slap pass to Ryan Callahan for a goal, and then lead the rush and set up Cedric Paquette for the game-winner.

“How do you find those plays, man?” Stralman asked his defence partner in the Lightning locker-room after Tampa Bay edged Chicago 3-2 in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final.

Hedman had no real answer then, just like the Blackhawks have no answer for the six-foot-six, smooth-skating, two-way defenceman in this series. He’s by far the biggest reason the Lightning lead the Cup final two games to one and is their biggest X-factor on hockey’s biggest stage.

“Words can’t describe the force he’s been out there for our team, not just offensively, but defensively,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “He’s been an absolute beast for us out there. Very rare do you see the combination of size and speed and smarts.”

Chicago’s Duncan Keith has the speed and smarts, just like other elite defencemen who led their teams to the Cup. Hedman is more physically imposing, has the kind of long reach that is frustrating the Blackhawks and the wherewithal to see plays developing seconds before they do.

Lightning veteran Brenden Morrow likened Hedman to Hall of Famer Scott Niedermayer, perhaps not as smooth but with the same kind of ability to get around the ice. In this series he is Tampa Bay’s answer to Keith, the 31-minute-per-night defenceman who has been the Blackhawks’ best player.

“In a lot of ways, yeah, he is a guy like Duncan who makes, more times than not, the players he’s out there with better,” Chicago captain Jonathan Toews said Tuesday. “He’s a catalyst when he’s in his own zone or when he’s in the offensive zone. He’s one of those guys we definitely need to get on a little bit more.”

Hedman, a Conn Smythe candidate if the Lightning win, presents a two-sided problem for the Blackhawks. For one, he and Stralman have for the most part clamped down on Toews and linemates, and at the other end he has wreaked havoc with a series-high four assists.

In Game 3 Monday night, Hedman made the two best plays of the night. With Callahan waiting at the far blue-line, the young Swede saw a Chicago defender fall and sent a perfect tape-to-tape stretch pass to him for the first goal.

With just a few minutes left and the score tied, Hedman carried the puck up the ice, froze the Blackhawks and threaded a pass that Paquette just had to re-direct into a wide-open net.

“I try to take advantage of my speed obviously and try and take what’s there,” Hedman said. “For me it’s all about trying to make the plays that’s there and don’t try to force things too much and try to use my strengths as a player.”

His Lightning teammates have known those strengths — his size, his poise, his vision and more — for years. Coach Jon Cooper pointed out it’s often a long evolution for a defenceman, and that Hedman, now in his sixth NHL season and second long playoff run, “has arrived.”

Inexplicably kept off the Swedish Olympic team in Sochi, Hedman is shining in the Cup final and the world is noticing. Cooper called this Hedman’s “coming-out party.”

Hedman would have been a Norris Trophy finalist had he not missed over 20 games with an injury. Being in the Western Conference the Blackhawks don’t see him play much, but he’s very much on their radar now.

“He’s great player, he’s a big guy, he can skate, he can move, he can pass, he can shoot. He’s got all the tools,” Chicago defenceman Brent Seabrook said. “In this series, he’s been a big part for them.”

Notes — Cooper had no update on the status of goaltender Ben Bishop, who played hurt in Game 3 but made 36 saves for the victory. … Blackhawks defenceman Johnny Oduya will probably be all right and play in Game 3 despite suffering an upper-body injury, according to Chicago coach Joel Quenneville.

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Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press