Lightning D-men beating Blackhawks at their own game

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Victor Hedman celebrates with Ben Bishop as Marian Hossa skates away at the end of Game 3 on Tuesday night. (AP Photo)

A 125-foot, tape-to-tape slap pass from behind his own net to the opposing blue line to set up a goal. A mad, high-speed dash through the neutral zone, followed by a nice move to the outside and a perfect centering pass to set up another goal.

These are the kinds of plays Blackhawks fans are used to seeing at the United Center. Just not from the other team.

Victor Hedman’s two remarkable, Duncan Keith-like plays were the difference in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final. The Tampa Bay Lightning are succeeding with a fast and skilled defensive corps joining the rush and activating the offense, combined with a sound and responsible two-way game by the forwards to clog the slot and protect their own goal.

In other words, the Lightning are beating the Hawks at their own game. To fight back, the Hawks might need to play somebody else’s game — perhaps Minnesota’s.

“They like to play with the puck, just like us,” Marian Hossa said. “Obviously, we have to figure out a few things. Their ‘D’ are skating extremely well with the puck, they’re joining the rush. In that case, we need to have four guys, at least, back. If we play well defensively, we’ll get lots of good things offensively.”

Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said this Final is a “coming-out party” for the 24-year-old Hedman, and indeed, he’s making quite a name for himself, vaulting into the Conn Smythe Trophy discussion with Keith, Patrick Kane and Tyler Johnson. At 6-foot-6, with great speed and keen vision, Hedman has been dominant at both ends of the ice. He has a goal and 13 assists in the playoffs, with two assists in each of the last two games.

On top of that, he and partner Anton Stralman have helped bottle up Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, among others. In Game 2 in Tampa, Kane tried his patented spin-o-rama to get around Hedman, who stuck with arguably the slipperiest player in the game. Kane spun right into Hedman’s chest.

“Words can’t describe the force he’s been out there for our team, not just offensively, but defensively,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “He plays in every situation. He’s a leader in this room. What more needs to be said than watching the replay of the goal he set up at the end [of Game 3]? He’s just another piece to this team’s puzzle, and he’s been unbelievable for us.”

He’s not alone, either. Stralman has been strong at both ends. Jason Garrison had the game-winning goal and an assist in Game 2. Braydon Coburn has been active and physical. With their quick zone exits and stretch passes, and knack for pinching at just the right time, the Hawks’ puck-moving defensemen have long been the team’s offensive catalyst. Tampa Bay’s following the same model, and the Hawks are learning how hard it can be to stop.

“They are good defensemen, no doubt,” Toews said. “I think we can keep them in their zone and keep trying to make them do things they don’t want to do, instead of letting them rush the puck and letting things play out in their favor.”

Easier said than done. Especially against Hedman.

“He’s really become an elite defenseman this year,” said fellow Swede Niklas Hjalmarsson, who said he was “surprised” Hedman didn’t make the Olympic team last year.

Of course, the best defense is a good offense. And in a near must-win Game 4, the Hawks know that the best way to slow down the Lightning rush it to hang on to the puck themselves.

“Their ‘D’ as a whole, they’re very mobile,” Joel Quenneville said. “A big part of their attack. They’ve got good puck-possession skills and play-making ability. We’re better off having [Hedman] defending than [having] him with the puck in the rush. We’ll have to make him play a little bit more defense.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus

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