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Anthony Cirelli playing like he belongs for Lightning

Rookie forward delivers a three-point night in Thursday's win over the Rangers
Anthony Cirelli, center, celebrates his second goal of the season along with Alex Killorn, left, and Adam Erne  during the second period against the Rangers. The goal gave the Lightning a 3-0 lead and chased New York goaltender Henrik Lundqvist from the game.  [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Anthony Cirelli, center, celebrates his second goal of the season along with Alex Killorn, left, and Adam Erne during the second period against the Rangers. The goal gave the Lightning a 3-0 lead and chased New York goaltender Henrik Lundqvist from the game. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

TAMPA – Lightning rookie center Anthony Cirelli waited patiently at his locker stall following Thursday night's win over the Rangers.

Cirelli, 22, had already done a live NHL Network interview from the bench. But now Cirelli, selected the first star of the game, was ready to greet the local media. That's when All-Star defenseman Victor Hedman popped into the dressing room and called dibs to get his interview done first.

Seniority rules.

"Five games isn't going to cut it," Hedman joked to Cirelli.

Actually, Cirelli has played just four games in the NHL. But he not only looks like he belongs in the league, he might stick in the Lightning's bottom six. Cirelli's three-point night Thursday in the 5-3 win was just the latest example of why.

His game wasn't flashy, but that's not what Cirelli is. He's smart and scrappy, a grinder who can surprise with his skill. Cirelli beat a few Rangers to a loose puck to set up Adam Erne's first-period goal. Cirelli, 6 feet and 180 pounds, went to the dirty areas in front of the net to deflect a Mikhail Sergachev shot for his second-period goal. And then, late in the second, Cirelli was active on the forecheck, creating a turnover behind the net and setting up Chris Kunitz for the eventual winner.

WATCH: Anthony Cirelli talks about his game against the Rangers.

"He plays way more mature than his age," said wing Cory Conacher, Cirelli's teammate in AHL Syracuse and Tampa. "He scored a lot of his goals this year in Syracuse right around the net. He's not the thickest boy, but he's not scared to go into the corners. He's taking big faceoffs and is on the penalty kill.

"It looks like he's going to be a big part of this team, and I'm not surprised."

Cirelli, an emergency callup March 1 when star Nikita Kucherov was dealing with an upper-body injury, hasn't left the lineup since. He has played some of his games over veteran Cedric Paquette.

And Cirelli has been gradually given more responsibility, including a role on the penalty kill (50 seconds of short-handed time Thursday). He took more faceoffs Thursday than any other Lightning player (going 7-for-15).

"He picked up some points for us, which has been great, but how has he played in the circle? How is he doing defensively? How is he doing in those areas?" coach Jon Cooper said. "And he's checking a lot of the boxes.

"In this league, as you march forward, you need some depth scoring. It can't come from all the same guys. Not that we're sitting here saying he's got to do it for us. But he's showing a knack of having the ability to do it. That's a good thing."

After all, Cirelli isn't nicknamed "Captain Clutch" for nothing.

Cirelli was the hero for the junior Oshawa Generals when they won the 2015 Memorial Cup title in the Canadian Hockey League, and he was a key trade-deadline acquisition for Erie in its run to the 2016-17 final (31 points in 22 playoff games).

That carried over into Cirelli's first pro foray, last spring's AHL Calder Cup Playoffs. He was inserted into the lineup in the final for the Crunch and didn't flinch. That caught the eye of the Lightning brass; Cooper said that was one reason Cirelli earned its confidence for a callup.

Crunch coach Benoit Groulx said it took a few practices for Cirelli to stand out, but once he got into a game, it was hard to take him out.

"When you're in the final, you go know how important every shift is," Groulx told the Times Friday. "For me, it's the trust. You put  him on the ice and he gets the job done. The trust, the consistency he brings shift in and shift out, it's remarkable. You put him on the ice, you know what you're getting with him. Trust comes with consistency and knowing what the player is going to do."

It was a coming-of-age moment for Cirelli, too.

"To be able to play in the Calder Cup finals and just getting thrown in there definitely helped my development," he said. "I got a taste of what the American League was like. That magnitude for the Calder Cup made it that much harder, and much more eye-opening."

Though Cirelli said his March 1 debut in Dallas was surreal, he plays like he's not overwhelmed by the moment.

"I've definitely calmed down a bit," he said. "Every game here, you've got to bring it every night. Playing with the lines I have here make it so much easier for me."

Maybe it's the other way around. As wing Alex Killorn said the other day of Cirelli, "He makes it look easy."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

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