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Anthony Cirelli’s consistent play belies his young age

The Lightning rookie came into his own as the team’s top defensive forward this year.

TAMPA — From the start, Anthony Cirelli sent a signal he could be a special player in the NHL.

Just maybe not for the reason his first impression might have suggested.

Cirelli scored his first NHL goal on his first NHL shot, in his NHL debut on May 1, 2018. The dynamic offensive start almost matched Nikita Kucherov’s eye-catching debut, though the sharpshooter took it a step further by scoring on his first shift.

Since then, however, Cirelli has gone the other way, making his mark as the Lightning’s top defensive forward.

Jon Cooper even compared him to Patrice Bergeron, universally considered one of the landmarks for defensive forwards. Cooper didn’t put his rookie on Bergeron’s level just yet, but said he could get there by rounding out his offensive game.

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Cirelli passed through the season as one of the few Lightning players not to draw criticism. Cooper seldom calls out players by name, but he can still make his displeasure clear. His praise of Cirelli, however, proved to be a rather constant refrain.

“He doesn’t cheat you on effort,” Cooper said repeatedly, one of his code phrases for a player that stands out to him.

He was always that kind of player. Cirelli routinely stands out as one of the last players to leave the ice after a morning skate. But having that taste of the NHL at the end of 2018, and especially in the playoffs, made him a more effective player this year.

Cirelli played 18 games in 2017-18, seven games shy of the NHL’s 25-game rookie standard. The taste helped him adjust to the league’s expectations, routines and intensity. Though technically a rookie, the 21-year-old with one more season left on his entry-level contract looked more like a veteran.

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Cirelli anchored the Lightning’s third line throughout the season and the first penalty-kill unit. He led all forwards with an average of 2:43 of shorthanded ice time, with a large gap between him and Cedric Paquette, second at 2:00.

At even strength, Cirelli finished second among forwards at plus-25 and third at 53.7 percent Corsi for (an indication of team possession calculated using total shot attempts, including missed and blocked shots).

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He made his mark on the forecheck, buzzing around opponents as they tried to break the puck out and creating turnovers. Cirelli kept up that consistent level of play through the playoffs, one of the few Lightning players to do so, confirming the organization’s high expectations for him.

Anthony Cirelli’s season

High: Cirelli recorded his only multi-goal game of the season, scoring two goals against the Rangers on Dec. 10.

Low: Cirelli had a consistent season, so finding a low requires some hair-splitting. Typically one of the Lighting’s best at the dot, Cirelli lost more than 80 percent of his faceoffs twice late in the season, against Detroit and Montreal.

By the numbers

82 games played, making Cirelli one of five players to play the whole season

5 shorthanded goals tied Cirelli for second in the league

39 points doesn’t stand out on a team of offensive firepower, until you consider his defensive-minded role

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at Follow @dianacnearhos.

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