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Anthony Cirelli making an impact in first NHL action

The rookie has made a point to learn as much as possible from the veterans in Tampa Bay's dressing room

by Bryan Burns /

As Anthony Cirelli sped down the left wing and into the offensive zone during Tampa Bay's game at Dallas March 1, he had one thought:

Get the puck on net,

Making his NHL debut that night at American Airlines Center, Cirelli absorbed every bit of information his Lightning teammates gave him before the game, including the note about the importance of putting shots on frame, even if you feel it will have little chance to go in.

Good thing Cirelli paid attention.

The 20-year-old left shot rookie center flew past 2018 NHL All-Star John Klingberg to create a sliver of separation in the left circle. Rather than aiming for the far post where more of the net was available, Cirelli saw some space between Stars goalie Ben Bishop and the near post and fired a wrist shot from the left dot with pinpoint accuracy into the opening for a goal in his NHL debut. 

The marker was an important one too as the Lightning had just fallen behind 2-1 after scoring the opening goal, Cirelli's tally stemming the Stars' momentum as well as evening the score 2-2. 

Video: Cirelli on scoring first career NHL goal

"I just kind of had (Bishop) wide, and the guys were stressing to keep playing pucks to the net," Cirelli recalled Monday following Tampa Bay's practice session at AMALIE Arena, adding that he had to look up at the scoreboard and watch the video replay to make sure his shot really did go in. "I just wanted to try and get it on net, and luckily for me it ended up going in."

Later in the contest, Cirelli intercepted a pass at center ice, carried the puck into the zone before dishing to his left for Cedric Paquette and picked up the second assist as Paquette's shot was rebounded into the net by Alex Killorn.

Cirelli became one of four Bolts all-time to record two points in his first NHL game, joining Karel Betik (Feb. 15, 1999), Paul Mara (April 17, 1999) and Cory Conacher (Jan. 19, 2013).

"It was an unbelievable experience, just being out there and being in the NHL, playing the game, it was a lot of fun out there," Cirelli said. "To get a goal is something I'll always remember for the rest of my life."

Cirelli has played two games since being recalled on March 1 and has made an impact in both. In Tampa Bay's 7-6 shootout win over Philadelphia Saturday, Cirelli saw over a minute of action on the Bolts' penalty kill, meaning he's earned the coaches' trust enough in the short amount of time he's been with the Lightning to see special teams action.

"We're just trying to give him as much experience as we can," Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness said. "We all know in the playoffs, we've got to get in first and foremost, and if you're fortunate enough to go on a long run, you need a lot of bodies. The more players we have here and give them a lot of experience going into the playoffs, it's for the long-term benefit. Anthony's done really well for us. No complaints."

Bowness said Cirelli has good hockey sense, can skate and has good skill.

"He's not out of place out there," Bowness said.

Cirelli has been skating on a line with NHL veterans Chris Kunitz and Ryan Callahan and has used the experience as a chance to soak up all the information they're willing to pass his way.

"Guys are always talking to me, trying to give me a little help here and there," the 6-foot, 180-pound Cirelli said. "But the main thing is just stick to my game. Down there in Syracuse, what I've been doing there just bring it here and take it to the next level."

What Cirellis's done in his first pro season with Syracuse is post 14 goals and 37 points, ranking second on the Crunch for scoring and first for power-play goals (6).

After getting his first taste of AHL action in a three-game trial at the end of the 2015-16 season and playing all six games of the Crunch's Calder Cup Final series against Grand Rapids last season, Cirelli has rapidly adapted to the AHL.

His first two games with the Lightning show he's a quick study at the NHL level too.

"It's definitely a lot faster," Cirelli said of the difference between the NHL and the AHL. "Quicker decisions need to be made. Guys are stronger, so I'm just kind of trying to learn from the guys here and take it one step at a time. I thought those first two games I was just trying to do what I can."

If he wants to continue playing for the Lightning this season, Cirelli knows what he'll have to continue to do.

"Just trying to be a 200-foot player," he said. "When I get out there, I want to be reliable. I don't want to be stuck in my D zone or giving up any goals. Just trying to be good defensively and just chipping in any offense when I can."

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