The Tampa Bay Lightning is a team full of star power. When you have the likes of Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy on your team, you have a good chance to win any series you’re in.
But even that star power needs help from their teammates to make deep runs in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. A pair of former Erie Otters are helping them do just that for a second straight season.
Anthony Cirelli & Erik Cernak are each playing a key role in helping the Lightning get back to the Stanley Cup Final. When you take a look at where each player came from, you’ll see that it’s no surprise that they’re each thriving on the big stage.
Cirelli & the Big Moments
Let’s rewind the calendar back to 2015 and to the Connor McDavid draft year. The Erie Otters were in the midst of their last playoff run before McDavid would head to the NHL.
The Otters just defeated Darnell Nurse and the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the OHL’s Western Conference Final. Only one obstacle stood in the way of McDavid and the Otters winning an OHL Championship.
That obstacle? Cirelli and his Oshawa Generals.
The Generals raced out to a 2-0 and 3-1 series lead before finishing off the Otters in five games to win the J. Ross Robertson Cup as OHL Champions. But then they had one last goal to achieve. That was to win a Memorial Cup.
In the Memorial Cup Final against the Kelowna Rockets, Cirelli scored two goals including the Cup-winning goal in overtime to single-handedly propel the Generals to a championship. Not bad for a rookie.
But Cirelli was just getting started.
Just two years later, the Otters traded for Cirelli to help with their playoff run. What does he manage to do? He scores the game-winning goal in overtime in Game 5 to win the J. Ross Robertson Cup for the Otters. When you need a big moment at a critical time, Cirelli is your guy. He cherishes these moments.
Cirelli has kept the good times rolling since his arrival in the NHL the year after winning the OHL Championship with the Otters. He’s kept up his mantra of performing his best when all the chips are down.
Again it was overtime. This time the Lightning were up 3-2 against the New York Islanders in the Edmonton bubble. Who finishes off the series and sends his team to a date with the Dallas Stars? It’s Cirelli.
And then this season, it wasn’t a goal but it was a huge assist in Game 7. Who has the puck? It’s Cirelli. His pass between the legs of New York Islanders forward Josh Bailey finds Yanni Gourde for the only goal of the game. It was shorthanded. It was the only shorthanded goal the Islanders gave up all season. Cirelli was surrounded by three Islander players. Again, he made the play when it mattered most.
There’s clutch and then there’s Cirelli clutch. Two OHL Championships, one Memorial Cup and one Stanley Cup are all on his resume. That’s just in his first 218 regular season and 64 playoff games. There’s nothing that phases him. Yet he wasn’t selected until the third round in the McDavid draft of 2015.
Several great players went in that 2015 draft but none have been more clutch when it’s mattered than Cirelli. Don’t be surprised if he’s in the middle of a Cup-clinching goal should the Lightning defeat the Montreal Canadiens. It’s in his DNA.
Related: Lightning Vs. Canadiens Storylines
Solid & Steady Cernak
Cernak’s path to the Lightning was quite different than Cirelli’s but don’t discount the impact he’s had on the blue line. While Cirelli was drafted in 2015 by the Lightning, Cernak was drafted 29 picks earlier in 2015 by the Los Angeles Kings. And then a trade that doesn’t get talked about nearly enough happened that sent Cernak to the Lightning.
At the 2017 trade deadline, the Lightning sent goalie Ben Bishop and a fifth-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft to the Kings for Cernak, goalie Peter Budaj and two other draft picks. Cernak was on the Otters at the time with Cirelli. He was a big reason on defense why the Otters hoisted the OHL Championship. He was as steady as a rock.
Cernak put up 3-18-21 in 50 games with the Otters in 2016-17 and then added 1-8-9 in 22 playoff games. He was a combined +48 between the regular season and playoffs.
What makes Cernak stand out is just how well he plays defensively while being able to chip in some offense. When you think of players who play an honest game, that’s him in a nutshell. He plays an in-your-face style of game and is very physical. But he consistently makes the right play and can move the puck. He is a perfect fit to the way the Lightning like to play.
Cernak is not going to dazzle you. He’s not going to make highlight reel plays. But ask anyone who plays with him or against him. His teammates love him and he’s a pain to play against. At 6-foot-4 and over 230 pounds, he is a monster. Then consider the other defenders on the team such as Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev, Ryan McDonagh and David Savard, Cernak fits right in. They’re big, physical defenders who can move the puck. That’s why the Lightning are one of the more formidable defenses going.
Like Cirelli, Cernak cherishes the big stage. He plays the game with a certain calmness about him that wears off on his teammates. He is as dependable as there is and the reason GM Steve Yzerman was interested in him back in 2017.
For Cirelli & Cernak, their paths crossed for the first time in Erie with the Otters. They won a championship together. Now they’re each trying to help the Lightning win a second straight Stanley Cup.
They each took a different path to get to where they are. But when it’s all on the line, Cirelli & Cernak each bring something different to the game in order to help get the job done. They each cherish the big stage. The Lightning are better because of that.
I am a fully credentialed writer who covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters and Erie Otters as well as the Ontario Hockey League and NHL Draft. The 2021-22 season will mark eight seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager.