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Lightning forward Anthony Cirelli raising his game offensively

The fourth-year center has been known more for his defense. But with four points in the first three games, he’s becoming an offensive threat, as well.
Lightning center Anthony Cirelli works to clear the Tampa Bay zone during a win over the Chicago Blackhawks earlier this month at Amalie Arena.
Lightning center Anthony Cirelli works to clear the Tampa Bay zone during a win over the Chicago Blackhawks earlier this month at Amalie Arena. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 23, 2021

Lightning center Anthony Cirelli has already earned a reputation as one of the league’s top defensive forwards at the age of 23. Now, as he enters his fourth NHL season, he’s showing the capability of becoming an offensive force, as well.

Cirelli has one goal and three assists in the Lightning’s first three games, logging at least one point in each game. His defensive game remains strong, but he’s found himself a bigger part of the offense in this season’s early going.

Cirelli is a centerpiece of Tampa Bay’s penalty kill but is also seeing an increased role on the Lightning’s power play.

Head coach Jon Cooper said Cirelli’s experience is starting to pay dividends offensively. He lauded the second-line center’s instincts and ability to put himself in good positioning away from the puck, which Cooper said is helping Cirelli immediately become an offensive presence with the puck on his stick.

“When you first come into the league, you’re just trying to survive,” Cooper said. “But, Tony, he’s just such a relentless player. A lot of people talk about hockey-sense is playing with the puck, and Tony’s got unbelievable hockey-sense without the puck. That’s why he’s in the right spot all the time.

“But when you have that innate ability to be in these certain situations, it’s just a matter of time when you’re doing it when you have the puck,” Cooper continued. “I think when he was trying to establish himself in the league, it was all his play away from the puck, and now he’s evolving his game as he’s getting more confident.”

Cirelli certainly has shown a knack for being in the right place offensively. On his goal in the Lightning’s season-opening win over the Blackhawks, he was positioned perfectly to the right of the net and made a spectacular redirection past goaltender Malcolm Subban. And on each of Cirelli’s three assists, he was in the right place to corral a loose puck and start a charge toward the net.

“(I’m) trying to try to learn when to make the right play and which plays to make or when to shoot and when to pass,” Cirelli said. “But, overall, I just want to work on everything in my game, even just trying to be better defensively and all-around in that 200-foot game.”

Off to Carolina? Or back to Tampa?

The Lightning received several days’ notice before their two-game series against the Stars was postponed because of Dallas’ coronavirus outbreak.

But Cooper is prepared to go into Saturday afternoon’s contest in Columbus not knowing whether his team will board a postgame flight to Raleigh or return to Tampa.

The Carolina Hurricanes had an outbreak of their own, and their series against the Florida Panthers was postponed. They are still slated to host the Lightning on Tuesday and Thursday, but the status of that series remained uncertain Friday evening as five Carolina players remained on the COVID protocol list.

“It’s just the reality of the times,” Cooper said. “Itineraries and (knowing) days in advance, and everyone knows exactly what’s going on, that’s not how it is now. We’re going day-by-day and sometimes hour-by-hour. It’s all out of our hands, so you can’t fret about the little things. There’s no sweating it. You let the small stuff roll over. This is out of our control.”

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If the series is postponed and the Lightning return home, they’ll have another lengthy stretch before their next game on Jan. 30 at home against Nashville.

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.

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