During the offseason, tampabaylightning.com will talk to Lightning players to get their first-hand account of a moment from the 2017-18 season, an update on their offseason or just what's on their mind currently.
Today, we catch up with Anthony Cirelli, who made his NHL debut March 1 in Dallas and recorded a goal and an assist against the Stars, becoming one of just four Tampa Bay Lightning players all time to notch two points in his first NHL game. The center was a mainstay in the Bolts lineup going forward, playing the final 18 games of the regular season and every postseason contest in the Lightning's run to the Eastern Conference Final.
"We threw him in there with 20-something games to go in the regular season, and he's going head-to-head against Nick Backstrom and (Evgeny) Kuznetsov and Jay Beagle - really, really good NHL centermen - and holding his own," Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said of Cirelli during his 2017-18 season exit interview.
Now in Ontario training for 2018-19, Cirelli took time to reminisce about what it was like once he got word he was moving up to the NHL, the nerves he felt before making his League debut and how he managed to score a goal in his first game, as told to tampabaylightning.com's Bryan Burns.
"Our season in Syracuse was going pretty well. We didn't start the way we would have liked but down the stretch, I thought we were playing really well as a team. Individually too, I was playing pretty decent. I wasn't expecting a callup. I just played my game and tried to get better down there as much as I could. You keep track of the guys up in Tampa and just kind of see how their season's going and stuff like that. But you never really think about, 'Am I going to get called up?' You're focusing on your game down in Syracuse and with the team down there. If it happens, it happens. And if it doesn't, you just keep working hard. Luckily for me, it just kind of happened. And it was a lot of fun.
The day I got called up, we were playing a school day game against the Marlies in Toronto. I had actually just finished talking to my family after the game. They were able to come over to Toronto and watch me play. Someone came to find me and said coach was looking for me. I went to talk to (Syracuse Crunch head coach) Ben (Groulx), and he let me know that Tampa Bay recalled me and there was a van waiting to take me to the airport. I honestly had no idea that was coming. I did feel it was kind of strange he was calling for me after the game. But, yeah, I had no idea until I went in there and saw him and then he let me know. Ben gave me some words of encouragement before I left, told me it's just a hockey game so go there and play the way I've been playing and know how to play.
The game against the Marlies was on a Wednesday morning, and the Lightning were playing in Dallas Thursday night, so I went directly to Dallas to meet up with the team. There were mixed emotions for me for sure; definitely excited, nervous, it was just a surreal feeling the whole time I was at the airport and on the flight and then arriving in Dallas. I couldn't really believe it was happening. I couldn't believe I was in Dallas. But it was really exciting, and I was anxious to see what was next.
Video: TBL@DAL: Cirelli snipes Bishop for first NHL goal
I got to Dallas in the late afternoon, well before the team arrived. It wasn't until the next morning, the morning of the game, that I actually met up with the team. Everyone came up to me and said hello and introduced themselves. It was kind of a weird day because there was no morning skate, so we just had the meal at the hotel and stuff like that. I was just trying to talk to everyone and say hi and have a little conversation with everyone. At lunch, (Lightning head coach Jon Cooper) let me know that I would be playing. Up until that point, I wasn't sure if I was in the lineup or not. I knew they had been dealing with some injuries, and that's why I got brought up. But I wasn't sure if some of those guys were healthy and ready to come back.
Throughout the day, guys were giving me tips and advice on making my NHL debut. Coop gave me some advice too. The biggest thing I remember from all the advice I got was to remember it's just a hockey game. Everyone was like, 'Go out there and play the way you've been doing throughout your career. Go play like it's another hockey game.'
The most I nervous I felt throughout the day was right before puck drop. Warmup was a lot of fun, just going out there and getting a little warmed up and stuff like that. I just kind of stuck to my warmup that I've been doing my whole career. Obviously, they do a certain warmup, and they kind of let me know a little before what the warmup was. I was just trying to fit in really and getting ready and prepare myself for the game. But coming back after that and learning I was in the starting lineup and then going out there for the beginning of the game was probably the most nervous I've ever felt before a game for sure.
The opening draw was really nerve-wracking too. I'm pretty sure it was against their top line, so to look over and see Seguin, Benn and Radulov starting, it was definitely surreal. Just to be in that moment was special. Once the first shifts got out of the way, it went pretty smooth after that. You kind of get the nerves out of you, and it's just like the guys said, you realize it's another hockey game and you go out there and play your game.
In the second period, I was fortunate enough to score a goal, and it was an important goal too as it tied the score in a game we would eventually win in overtime. I can't remember who the D was who got me the puck, but he kind of just chipped it up the middle of the ice and I had some speed so I kind of just took it wide. I remember people telling me before the game, 'If you get a chance to shoot, just put the puck on net.' And that's kind of what I did. When it came off my stick, I didn't really know if it was a good shot or not. But it kind of squeaked through. It was so exciting and exhilarating and surreal for sure. All the guys congratulated me, and everyone was really happy for me. I'm pretty sure it was Cally who grabbed the puck out of the net and gave it to the trainers, and then they gave me the puck after the game.
Later in that period, I had an assist, and Coop came up to me and said - I can't remember his exact words - but he was like, 'Are you ready to get in a fight?' It was pretty funny. I only needed a fight to record a Gordie Howe hat trick in my first NHL game. But there were a couple big boys on the Stars, so I didn't know if I was ready to do that yet.
After the game in the locker room, they gave me the puck from my first goal and said congrats and a bunch of the guys cheered. Throughout the night and after, everyone was congratulating me and everyone was really happy.
That game gave me a lot of confidence for the rest of the season. I didn't have to focus on scoring my first goal because I got it out of the way in that first game. It just kind of boosts your confidence a little bit. Hockey is the greatest game in the world, so you've got to be able to bring it every night. It was just my first game, so there was a lot of stuff that I still had to do. I just took it one day at a time and a lot of people who helped me, teammates and coaches, gave me tips throughout the games.
It was an unbelievable feeling finishing out the year with the Lightning and then being able to play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It's every kid's dream. It was really intense. Obviously, not the ending that we wanted, but it was a great experience for me and I took a lot out of it. This summer, I've been working on a lot of things, trying to get stronger being the main thing but also my skating for sure, my shooting, trying to gain a little more weight, thicken out a little bit more. Everything about my game, I'm been trying to work on to get a little bit better to get ready for training camp and try to earn a spot on the team."