Anthony Cirelli playing like he belongs for Lightning

Author: Joe Smith,
Date: Mar 9, 2018

Lightning rookie Anthony Cirelli waited patiently at his locker stall following Thursday night's win over the Rangers.

Cirelli, 22, dubbed the first star of the game, was ready to greet his media scrum when All-Star defenseman Victor Hedman popped into the dressing room and called dibs to get his done first.

Seniority rules.

"Five games isn't going to cut it," Hedman jokingly quipped to Cirelli.

Actually, Cirelli has played just four games in the NHL. But Cirelli looks like he belongs. Cirelli's three-point night Thursday was just the latest example.

This wasn't flashy, but that's not the type of prospect Cirelli is. He's extremely smart and skilled, and that showed in his workmanlike effort. Cirelli beat a few Rangers to a loose puck to set up Adam Erne's first period goal. Cirelli, a 6-foot-, 180-pound center, went to the dirty areas in front to deflect a Mikhail Sergachev shot for his second-period goal. And then, late in the second, Cirelli was active on the forecheck, creating a turnover behind the net and setting up Chris Kunitz for the eventual game-winner.

Kunitz, a four-time Cup champion, thinks Cirelli's first NHL goal on his first NHL shot in his Mar. 1 debut in Dallas, sparked this four-game run.

"Confidence is a crazy thing," Kunitz said. "When you get it, you want to hold onto it for as long as you can. Your first game, first shot, instantly he has confidence. He's a guy that plays hard, plays in the middle, goes into your face and plays that defensive side, but can skate and shoot."

Cirelli, an emergency callup Mar. 1 when star Nikita Kucherov was dealing with an upper-body injury, hasn't left the lineup since. He's played a couple games over veteran Cedric Paquette.

And Cirelli has been given more responsibilities, including a role on the penalty kill (50 seconds of short-handed time Thursday).

"He picked up some points for us, which has been great, but how has he played in the circle? How is he doing defensively? How is he doing in those areas?" coach Jon Cooper said. "And he's checking a lot of the boxes.

"In this league as you march forward, you need some depth scoring. It can't come from all the same guys. Not that we're sitting here saying he's got to do it for us. But he's showing a knack of having the ability to do it. That's a good thing."

After all, they didn't call Cirelli "Captain Clutch" for nothing.

Cirelli, a Memorial Cup hero for the OHL Oshawa Generals in 2015, was a key deadline acquisition for Erie in its run to the 2016-17 finals (31 points in 22 playoff games).

And that carried over into Cirelli's first pro foray into last spring's Calder Cup playoffs in the American Hockey League. He was inserted into the lineup for the Crunch and didn't flinch. That caught the eye of the Lightning brass, with Cooper mentioning that was one reason why he earned their confidence for a callup.

It meant a lot to Cirelli, too.

"To be able to play in the Calder Cup Finals and just getting thrown in there definitely helped my development," Cirelli said. "I got a taste of what the American League was like. In that magnitude for the Calder Cup, made it that much harder, and much more eye-opening."

Though Cirelli said Mar. 1 debut in Dallas was "surreal," he plays like he's not overwhelmed by the moment.

"I've definitely calmed down a bit," Cirelli said. "Every game here, you've got to bring it every night. Playing with the lines I have here make it so much easier for me."

Maybe it's the other way around. As wing Alex Killorn said the other day of Cirelli, "He makes it look easy."

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