Tony Cirelli makes his playoff presence felt immediately for Lightning

Tampa Bay Lightning center Anthony Cirelli (71) battles along the glass against New Jersey Devils center Brian Boyle (11) during third period action of game one of the first round of the NHL playoffs at Amalie Arena in Tampa Thursday evening. (Dirk Shadd, Times)
Tampa Bay Lightning center Anthony Cirelli (71) battles along the glass against New Jersey Devils center Brian Boyle (11) during third period action of game one of the first round of the NHL playoffs at Amalie Arena in Tampa Thursday evening. (Dirk Shadd, Times)
Published April 13, 2018

TAMPA — Tony Cirelli is 20 years old and living out of a hotel, which is terrific, he said, because that hotel is a short walk to work.

That would be Amalie Arena, where Cirelli serves as the Lightning's third-line center and penalty-kill specialist. He has played all of 18 regular-season games since making his debut March 1 in Dallas. He scored that night on his only shot. Got an assist, too.

He was called up from AHL Syracuse to fill in for Nikita Kucherov, who missed the second of two games that night with an upper body injury.

Cirelli did not know how long he would last with the team.

"They told me to make them worth it," Cirelli said.

The Lightning has a 1-0 lead against the Devils heading into this afternoon's Game 2 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, and Cirelli is still here.

"I took it one day at a time," Cirelli said, "and I am lucky enough to be here now."

Cirelli played eight minutes, 14 seconds during his NHL debut against the Stars. He played 14:20 during the Lightning's 5-2, Game 1 victory Thursday, including 1:02 on the penalty kill.

"He's impressed me a lot," captain Steven Stamkos said.

Cirelli was one of four Lightning players to play in their first playoff game Thursday, joining Brayden Point, Yanni Gourde and Mikhail Sergachev.

"They didn't look out of place," Stamkos said of the quartet.

Cirelli has fit in since he arrived. The one hitch, coach Jon Cooper said, was finding a line for him to play on. Eventually, Cooper placed Cirelli with Gourde and Alex Killorn.

"The one thing was to find him a spot at center which is more natural playing, but you could just tell with every game, when the nerves started going away he started getting more comfortable," Cooper said. "He really found a great role for us on the third line there and on the penalty kill, and he's done a great job."

Unlike last season when injuries constantly had the Lightning dipping into the Syracuse roster, the player movement this year was a tad slower. Those who were called up earned the promotion.

Cirelli said he was content to hone his craft at Syracuse this season, continue to work on his 200-foot game and follow the instructions of the coaches.

"I wasn't worried about getting called up," Cirelli said. "If it happened, it happened. If it didn't, it didn't."

It happened after a day game in Toronto. Cirelli had been talking to his parents, Rocco and Maria, outside the locker room when he was called back inside and told he was joining the Lightning in Dallas.

It has been one hotel after another since then for the 6-foot, 180-pound native of Etobicoke, Ontario.

Not that he minds.

"This is something, obviously, every kid dreams of playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs," he said, "and for me to be going through it is something special."

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Cirelli said he was anxious before Game 1. The veterans did a good job of prepping the rookies on what to expect, but playoff hockey is something you have to experience to understand. His first shift went by quick and helped ease his nerves. He settled into his game, even helped kill off a second period penalty by diving after a puck to clear the zone.

On the way to the bench, Kyle Palmieri slammed into Cirelli. Cirelli slammed back.

"I was just trying to go my way there," Cirelli said. "Obviously, it's playoff hockey. The intensity is up. Things get heated. I wasn't going to back down. That's not the player I am."

There was some pushing and shoving by both teams after the final horn, and Cirelli was in the mix, not backing down, standing up for his teammates.

"He's been such a reliable player at every level, but to have it come so natural at this level for how young he is, is pretty impressive," Stamkos said. "He stepped in and did everything and more than the coaching staff has asked from him. He's going to be a huge part of this team for a long time, but he's going to be a huge part of us in these playoffs.

"I thought he played outstanding (Thursday). He's just kind of carefree in terms of not being nervous, of not feeling pressure. He just goes out there, he plays a certain way and he plays that way."

Contact Roger Mooney at Follow @rogermooney50.