NEW YORK — For six weeks, the Lightning managed just fine without Victor Hedman.
Now that he’s back in the lineup, it’s difficult not to think Tampa Bay will be even better, which is quite a possibility for a team that enters tonight’s game against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden in a six-way tie for the most points in the league with 34.
Hedman fractured a finger at Vancouver on Oct. 18, the fifth game of the season, and had surgery to insert pins two days later. Including the game Hedman left, Tampa Bay was 13-5-1 without him.
Hedman returned on Saturday against Ottawa, logging 19 minutes and 55 seconds of ice time and looking as if he never missed a beat. He had three shots on goal, two hits, two blocked shots and was a plus-2.
“He was commanding out there, with and without the puck,’’ Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said of Hedman’s first game in six weeks. “It’s great to have him back. It takes a lot of relief off other guys who play big minutes on our team. I’m sure when he gets his legs more, he’ll play more. But in the second and third (periods), he was outstanding.’’
When Hedman is on his game, he’s a presence in all aspects.
He enjoyed a breakout offensive season last year with 13 goals and 55 points in 75 games and finished ninth in voting for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defensemen, garnering one first-place vote. With his speed, he has the ability to skate the puck out of danger or lead the rush up ice.
In the defensive zone, his stick work is top notch. In his seventh season after being the second overall pick in 2009, he’s a legitimate No. 1 defenseman.
“He’s an ultra-talent,’’ Cooper said.
During his first six seasons, Hedman missed games here and there, never playing more than 79 games a season. But the 18 games this fall was the longest he sat out. After getting back on the ice Saturday, he jumped right back into the top pairing with Anton Stralman and felt right at home.
“It feels great to be back,” Hedman said. “Just for me to get back into game action, you can’t look back and say you had a good start to the season. It’s just like a new season for me (since) I only played five games to start. ... I’m very pleased to get back.’’
Watching the team play so well in his absence made the time away easier for Hedman. But with any team on a roll, sometimes a returning player can be a disruption.
Not for Hedman.
“I just try to worry about myself the first few games,’’ he said. “I want to get my timing back, play simple, make plays, don’t be afraid — and I think that’s what I did. I had some chances, and I would have liked to have buried one of those, but my timing got better as the game went on, got physical right away and skated.’’
No matter how well the team played without Hedman, his being back on the ice is a welcome sight.
“He just eats up minutes,’’ left wing Brenden Morrow said. “He’s such a big guy and skates so well. But he’s just well-positioned, things are easy for him. He gets around the ice pretty good, he shoots pucks hard and is a big presence for us.’’