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Victor Hedman coming into his own with Lightning in Stanley Cup final

TAMPA — There was apparently something gnawing at Victor Hedman. Only for once, this time—literally. After getting tangled with the Blackhawks’ rabble-rouser Andrew Shaw in a first-period scrum behind the Tampa Bay net in Game 1, the Lightning defenseman skated back to his bench bemused and a bit befuddled. Cameras caught the big-bodied blueliner, who has more than half a foot on the 5’11” Shaw, lifting his sweater to show his torso to a trainer on the bench. Tampa Bay teammate Brendan Morrow leaned in, curiously. “He bit me,” Hedman seemed to say.

The video isn’t exactly worthy of Zapruder-level dissection, and by Friday neither player wanted much to be baited into discussing it. But it’s instructive to consider Hedman’s turn as chew toy began with a firm, post-whistle check on Blackhawks scoring winger Patrick Kane. Now, five years into his career, the 6’6”, 233-pound Hedman is showing an element of physicality to his game, perhaps even a hint of bitterness.

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“It’s probably the toughest position to come into this league as an 18-year-old defenseman,” Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos said. “There were some tough years, but we went through tough years as a team.”

More than anyone else, Stamkos knows well the glare that accompanies immediate expectations unmet. Back in 2008, billboards around town hypothetically asked “Seen Stamkos?” before Tampa Bay drafted him No. 1 overall that June. By January ’09, fans saw Stamkos in the press box, a healthy scratch for a handful of games. The following off-season the Lightning selected Hedman second overall. He already boasted rich and impressive experience that included playing in the Swedish elite league, but like Stamkos, Hedman occasionally saw time on the bench his rookie year in Tampa Bay.

After a run to Eastern Conference final in 2011, the team took a sizable step back the next season. Struggling with injuries, Hedman, by then 22 years old, had only five goals and 23 points, finishing the 2011-12 season at a ratio of -9. His Swedish countryman, Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson, also 22, was meanwhile winning the Norris Trophy. Hedman didn’t garner a single top five vote that season.

One of the issues with a defenseman of Hedman’s stature and preternatural skillset coming into the NHL was the comparison he inevitably drew to the similarly sized Chris Pronger. Nevermind their games couldn’t be more dissimilar. At 6’6”, 220 pounds and also selected second overall (in 1993), Pronger used his extraordinary hockey sense to dictate the pace of games. He played with an edge that intimidated opponents physically just as much as he broke them down mentally. Really there aren’t many players who could compare, and it was an unfair comparison for Hedman, whose game is much more finesse than fierce. While Pronger let the game come to him, Hedman inserts himself into the game.

“Pronger was a good skater for how big he was,” said Lightning defenseman Matt Carle, who was Pronger’s teammate in Philadelphia from 2009-12. “But I don’t think he was a guy that would be leading rushes and carrying the puck as much as [Hedman] does.”

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When it comes to skating, Hedman’s abilities are second to none. “I don’t know if fans really have an appreciation for it,” Carle said. “Because his legs are so long, his feet aren’t moving as quick, but he is flying out there. You can see it when he’s skating by people.”

Says Stamkos: “Just his ability to take over the game with his size and his speed, it’s pretty rare to have that combination…. He has the ability to play physical when he needs to be. But a lot of the time, people don’t realize he doesn’t have to be because he’s always in the right position.”

His skating can cover up his sins on the ice; look at his relatively short record. Just 10 times this season (playoffs included), he’s been called for a restraining foul. He has been to the box just three times in this postseason, and not since Game 5 against Montreal.

Playing with veteran defenseman Anton Stralman—a player who Lightning coach Jon Cooper has said routinely makes those around him look better—Hedman has flourished this season. A hand injury in October sidelined him for 18 games, but he rebounded quickly, finishing the season with 38 points in 59 games. Routinely matching up against the best players on opposing teams, which he hadn’t done regularly until this season, he is a combined plus-22 (playoffs included).

“He’s really awesome, really big for our team. He can move. He can shoot. He can play defense. Be physical. He’s got the big frame,” Stralman said before the start of the finals. “I’m sure not everybody’s seen how good a player he is, but he’s going to show up in the final.”

Through one game, Shaw perhaps left the more conspicuous mark, but the relative silence of Kane, of Chicago captain Jonathan Toews, will be the defining measure of Hedman’s success.