Lightning’s Cirelli Line Is Most Important in Stanley Cup Final

The key for the Tampa Bay Lightning to win their third straight Stanley Cup will be one of their core lines. The best part is, for this group to be successful they don’t have to score any goals, as the trio of Anthony Cirelli, Brandon Hagel, and Alex Killorn will be tasked with shutting down the high-powered offense of the Colorado Avalanche.

Many consider the Avalanche to be the most challenging opponent of the Lightning’s three-year Cup run. The Avs have a 12-2 record in their first three series of the 2022 Playoffs and, in their 14 playoff games, have averaged a league-leading 4.6 goals per game (GPG) and 40.7 shots-on-goal (SOG). However, the Cirelli line did a good job in the Lightning’s Game 1 loss in overtime and will need to continue that effort throughout this series to come away with another championship.

Cirelli Anchors Key Line

During these playoffs, Cirelli has anchored a line responsible for trying to shut down the top lines of each opponent. In their last series, that meant trying to contain the high-powered New York Rangers’ offense led by Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, and Artemi Panarin. Before that, it was Aleksander Barkov’s line on the Florida Panthers and Auston Matthews on the high-scoring Toronto Maple Leafs.

What makes Cirelli so effective? Head coach Jon Cooper knows: “He just anticipates. His stick position, his body position. He knows if he’s getting the puck, he’s not letting the man by him. And when you have that no quit in you and that relentless attitude, that helps too, especially in all those situations when you’re playing without the puck.”

Anthony Cirelli Tampa Bay Lightning
Anthony Cirelli, Tampa Bay Lightning (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Another reason for his success is that Cirelli watches a lot of videos. Starting with the Toronto series, he went home after every game and watched clips of his shifts, looking for any scrap of information he could gather on what he was doing, as well as his opponents.

This work ethic paid off throughout the series, and against the Rangers, he prevented Zibanejad from recording a point in the last three games of the Eastern Conference Final. When he was younger, he learned about work ethic and the value of being a two-way player by following Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks, one of the best two-way players in the NHL (from “How Anthony Cirelli became the Lightning’s ‘engine’ and why that complicates their summer cap crunch,” The Athletic, 12/18/19).

Hagel Makes a Smooth Transition From Chicago

Brandon Hagel had to make some adjustments after being moved to the Lightning from the Blackhawks at the trade deadline. One of the first ones was to switch from scoring to focusing more on his defensive game. With his former team, he scored 21 goals in his first 55 games. With the Lightning, his ability to tenaciously attack the puck and block shots have been the key to his success and, by extension, his line’s success.

Alex Killorn has had nothing but praise for his new teammate. “He’s been a great addition,” Killorn said. “He’s a great forechecker. And for his size, he’s really strong on the puck. He makes a lot of great plays. We’ve found some chemistry.”

Brandon Hagel Tampa Bay Lightning
Brandon Hagel, Tampa Bay Lightning (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images)

Hagel has been doing all of this while playing with an injured foot after blocking a shot in Game 2 of the Panthers series, something that is very much respected by his teammates. He is more than ready for the challenge ahead. “You want to be a big part,” Hagel said. “You want to be a huge part of why the team has success in being able to shut down – if that becomes the case – the MacKinnon line. It’ll be a challenge that we want to take and run with.”

For the Lightning, this means achieving the kind of success against the Avalanche’s top guns as they did against the high-powered attack of the Rangers. The challenge will be even greater this time around, as MacKinnon has more speed and physicality than Zibanejad and Barkov, as well as an elite skill set.

Killorn Provides Solid Two-Way Support

If this line does contribute offensively, it will likely be thanks to Killorn. While not supplying much in the way of scoring goals, he has done the little things to help the Lightning offensive. In the playoffs, he has been at his best, possessing the puck and getting it into the offensive zone for sustained pressure. This has paid dividends in all three series wins; it was Killorn who stole the puck from Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba during a four-minute Nikita Kucherov penalty, which led to a tripping call on Trouba, who had to prevent a breakaway chance. It was also Killorn who put the puck on net to set up Brayden Point’s Game 6 overtime goal against the Maple Leafs that shifted the Lightning’s postseason fortunes.

Tampa Bay Lightning Alex Killorn
Tampa Bay Lightning center Alex Killorn (17) during the NHL game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Carolina Hurricanes at the PNC Arena.

Killorn was also the first to recognize what it takes to make his line work. “I think we have enough skill and talent to score offensively, but we focus on our defensive game. If we don’t let them score, if we win 2-1, we’re happy with that. We don’t [have] to win by six goals or whatever it may be. We want to defend first.” They may be defending first, but with Killorn, this group has out-attempted their opponents 24-7 and out-chanced them 13-3 at 5-on-5, per Natural Stat Trick. By the way, the Mikhail Sergachev goal that tied Game 1 at three was set up by the forechecking of Killorn, Hagel, and Cirelli, with the latter two getting the assists.

Related: Lightning Still Succeeding While Offense Declines

The Lightning have won 11 consecutive playoff series dating back to the 2020 First Round and are the third franchise to win 11 or more playoff series in a row. Winning a 12th and a third-straight Stanley Cup will require a huge effort from the Cirelli-Hagel-Killorn line.

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