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Cirelli relishing 'Mr. Reliable' role in playoffs for Lightning

Rookie forward making impact by killing penalties, playing smart, aggressive game

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

BOSTON -- Anthony Cirelli has a nickname. It was given to the Tampa Bay Lightning rookie center by captain Steven Stamkos.

"Mr. Reliable," Stamkos said. "He plays well beyond his age."

Cirelli, 20, made his NHL debut March 1 after being recalled from Syracuse of the American Hockey League. He lives in a hotel near Amalie Arena. He doesn't have a car, so he bums rides from teammates. He pays rent for an apartment in Syracuse he no longer lives in.

 

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And he's making a huge impact in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Cirelli scored his first NHL playoff goal, had a Lightning-best five shots on goal, and drew three penalties in 11:44 of ice time in a 4-1 win against the Boston Bruins in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Second Round at TD Garden on Wednesday.

That performance helped Tampa Bay take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 series. Game 4 is at Boston on Friday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS).

"I just try to take my game and elevate because it's the next level, it's the best league," Cirelli said. "It's just about playing my game."

The Lightning are averaging 55.95 percent of the even-strength shot attempts when Cirelli is on the ice centering the third line between Alex Killorn and Yanni Gourde during the playoffs. Cirelli leads Tampa Bay's forwards in shorthanded ice time per game during the postseason at 1:52.

Video: TBL@BOS, Gm3: Cirelli chips home his own rebound

"It's his attitude," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "He wants to belong. He wants to be part of this team. He's been accepted by the team just because he does all those little things right. I was so pumped when he scored that goal."

Cirelli's goal gave the Lightning a 3-1 lead at 16:43 of the first period, 2:31 after Patrice Bergeron scored for the Bruins and got the TD Garden crowd back into the game after a slow start.

It was the latest in what has become a relatively long line of timely goals in big games from Cirelli.

He scored the game-tying goal and the overtime winner for Oshawa in the 2015 Memorial Cup championship game months after he had made the team in a tryout after being passed over twice in the Ontario Hockey League draft.

They were the only goals Oshawa scored in the 2-1 win.

Cirelli had seven points (three goals, four assists) to help Canada win the silver medal at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship, including a goal and an assist in a 5-2 win against Sweden in the semifinals.

He also scored the championship-clinching overtime goal for Erie in Game 5 of the 2017 OHL final.

"If you've scored big goals in the past, it's just something that's inside you that you have," Killorn said. "You can call it a clutch factor. He's played in big situations. Stanley Cup Playoffs is a completely different level, but for people that are Canadian, playing in the World Juniors, the Memorial Cup, that's as big of a stage as you can get other than the (Stanley Cup) playoffs."

Cirelli said success in those situations gives him confidence he can have it in the NHL.

Video: Cirelli on the 4-1 victory over the Bruins

"Being through that, knowing what's at stake, the atmosphere, it definitely helps," Cirelli said. "But this is a whole other level. It's the Stanley Cup Playoffs. There is nothing like it, so the intensity is way higher and obviously it's a lot harder."

Cirelli hasn't made it look all that difficult. That relates to his confidence, built over years of having to prove himself, like after he wasn't selected in the OHL draft and now to the NHL as a third-round pick (No. 72) in the 2015 NHL Draft who is now getting his chance.

"I'll say this, he's very comfortable in his style of game," Stamkos said. "He knows what he has to bring. He just goes out there and knows if he plays the way he's supposed to, for the most part he's going to be extremely effective. That's what has impressed us the most, his confidence. You never really have to tell him to do anything, he just does it and it's pretty impressive."

Using Cirelli as the third-line center allowed Cooper to move Tyler Johnson to right wing on the second line, with center Brayden Point and left wing Ondrej Palat. That puts Johnson in more of a scorer's role, which suits his game.

Cirelli can put the puck in the net, as he did in Game 3, five times in 18 regular-season games and 14 times in 51 AHL games this season, but the Lightning don't have to rely on him for offense because they have enough players ahead of him with a long history of scoring.

Tampa Bay instead needs Cirelli to be dependable defensively, to play fast, to forecheck aggressively, to force turnovers and to kill penalties.

All of that is within his control, and being in that role allows him to play to his strengths: strong effort, smart reads and the ability to create some adversity for the opponent regardless of the situation or the time of year.

It's about being reliable.

"That's another good player we have to account for," Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said.

***

 

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