Oh, there are plenty of pretty players on the ice this time of year. The ones who make you marvel at their grace, and appreciate the precision of their skills.
There are the physical standouts, too. The skaters who seem to move as quickly as the puck, not to mention the oversized goaltenders who anticipate and react with uncommon quickness.
But when it comes to playoff hockey, give me the grunts. The hustlers, the battlers, the guys in the corners.
Give me Anthony Cirelli.
On a team of prime-time stars and trophy winners, Cirelli is like the cousin with a cheap haircut. He doesn’t score as much and he darn sure doesn’t talk as much, but Cirelli is the guy a teammate is likely to choose when it comes to a pickup game.
“You just circle the dirty areas on the ice,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, “and he goes to them and excels at them.”
In case you didn’t know that, Tuesday night’s 2-1 victory against the Hurricanes in Game 2 should have convinced you. Cirelli was all over the ice and the game summary, too. He got off six shots and picked up two hits. He won seven of eight faceoffs and scored the eventual game-winning goal.
But it was the moments that don’t show up in the postgame paperwork that define the kind of player Cirelli is for the Lightning. He’s there on the penalty kill, and he’s there in the game’s final seconds when Carolina stacks the ice with scorers.
He was also there when the Lightning took a 1-0 lead, but you had to be paying attention to realize it. Following a long pass from Victor Hedman, it was Cirelli who went behind the Carolina net and battled Jaccob Slavin for position.
And once the puck scooted out along the boards toward Alex Killorn, Cirelli took up residence in front of the net and blocked the view of goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic as Killorn’s shot from the blue line sailed past for the score.
“Those are the type of players you need this time of year,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “And those are the types of games that you’re going to have to get used to winning.”
This is nothing new, of course. While the Lightning were cruising toward the Stanley Cup title last season, Cirelli was a 22-year-old wrecking ball in every series. He led Tampa Bay in takeaways last postseason and blocked more shots than any forward on the team. Now, through the first eight games of this postseason, he leads the Lightning in hits and is tied with Blake Coleman in takeaways.
The only difference is Cirelli is starting to show up more on the scoresheet. His breakaway in the third period on Tuesday night, which led to a fancy-for-him backhanded goal to put the Lightning up 2-0, was his third goal of these playoffs.
“My momentum carried me (to) the backhand to get a little room there,” Cirelli said. “I was just trying to put one on net, and I was fortunate that it went in.”
All this for a player who went 28 consecutive games at the end of the season without a goal. That type of scoreless drought may have emotionally crippled a different kind of player, but Cirelli never stopped grinding.
“You have these guys who compete so hard and when you take them out of the game it can be frustrating, but you need to have the mental wherewithal to work your way through it,” Cooper said. “Tony has proven that from youth hockey to junior to the American League to here. That’s why he’s turned himself into what I consider a big-time player in this league and he shows up in big-time moments.”
Cirelli finished fourth in the Frank Selke Trophy voting last season — given to the NHL’s best defensive forward — which was fairly remarkable considering the award is typically limited to contenders who have built their reputations over several seasons. Cirelli was just the third player as young as 22 to have finished in the top five of voting in the past decade.
It speaks to the respect Cirelli is gaining in the league, even if he hasn’t had the type of monster scoring season that might get his name noticed beyond Tampa Bay.
Although a few more nights like Game 2, and the rest of the hockey world is going to catch up in a hurry.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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