When the Tampa Bay Lightning found themselves struggling a bit with late-season injuries, general manager Steve Yzerman made the unorthodox decision to bring up a guy in his first professional season. The stint was expected to be short so nobody thought much of it.
Despite the initial thoughts, Anthony Cirelli burst onto the scene with a vengeance upon being recalled from AHL Syracuse. He impressed everyone, from grizzled veterans to the coaching staff, and the list goes on. He’s even drawn favorable comparisons to Ondrej Palat and Yanni Gourde, both of whom spent a little time with the Lightning before earning full-time roster spots.
Mere months after being called up, Cirelli is making a difference in the Bolts’ quest for the Cup.
Anthony Cirelli: Stepping Right In
After appearing in 51 games for the Syracuse Crunch, Cirelli got the call to join the Lightning. He made his debut Mar. 1, 2018 against the Dallas Stars, registering two points in an overtime win. That victory kept the team neck-and-neck with the Boston Bruins for the Atlantic Division crown.
It wasn’t the rookie’s best game though. That came one week later versus the New York Rangers, a contest in which he had three points.
Perhaps more impressive, Cirelli makes the most of his shifts. Averaging between 14 and 15 minutes a game to close out the regular season, he rarely finished with a minus rating. In fact, his four subpar games saw him produce no lower than a minus-1 rating. Compare that to fourth-line center Cedric Paquette, who was a combined minus-5 from Mar. 1 until Apr. 7.
The biggest asset for Cirelli, however, is the shooting mentality he possesses.
During his 18 games to finish the regular season, Cirelli fired 26 shots on net, scoring five goals. That comes out to about 19 percent. For comparison’s sake, that’s better than everyone on the Bolts except trade deadline acquisition J.T. Miller.
Cirelli also has a nose for the net. He makes a living out of going into the dirty areas. It is from there that he gets many of his points, a result of hounding the opponent into turnovers. Some of those mistakes end up setting the table for glorious scoring chances. Others end up in the back of the oppositions net.
Another place Cirelli has contributed is on the penalty kill. A season-long bugaboo for the Lightning, the youngster’s ability to win crucial faceoffs can help the team kill a few precious seconds off the clock. That gives the others, including the goaltender, enough time to see the play develop and react accordingly.
When it came time to make the postseason roster, there was little doubt Cirelli would be on it. He had earned the trust of his teammates and head coach Jon Cooper.
Playoff Veteran on a New & Bigger Stage
Though new to the NHL playoff scene, Cirelli has experience in the playoffs. He seldom looks out of place, an attribute that has served him well thus far during the 2018 postseason.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed either, with one of the team’s leaders remarking on how impressive he’s been since the call-up to begin March. A lot of that has to do with his calm demeanor and workman-like approach to everything.
Why can he handle his first professional playoff experience with such ease? That’s likely a byproduct of his prior postseason experience. Whether it be in the Memorial Cup final a year ago or the AHL’s Calder Cup final after his junior season had concluded, he’s been on a big stage before and knows how to handle pressure moments.
During the 2018 playoffs, Cirelli has contributed to nearly every win. It hasn’t always shown up on the scoresheet, but make no mistake: his points have been big.
Take, for instance, Game 5 of the Lightning’s first-round series with the New Jersey Devils. With no score, Cirelli scored the Bolts’ first goal of the game. That set the tone for a 3-1 victory, the exclamation point on their first-round series win.
Based on his first handful of games, I think it’s safe to say Cirelli has been impressive. Does he make the Lightning’s opening-day roster in 2018-19? That’s a question for another day, as his current focus is on contributing to this team’s quest for Lord Stanley.