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Lightning center Anthony Cirelli’s growth not measured by numbers alone

Coach Jon Cooper sums it up: “It’s guys making big plays in big moments, and Cirelli seems to do that.”
Lightning center Anthony Cirelli is "just one of those players that does all those little things" to help make the team better that often go unnoticed to outsiders, coach Jon Cooper says.
Lightning center Anthony Cirelli is "just one of those players that does all those little things" to help make the team better that often go unnoticed to outsiders, coach Jon Cooper says. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 19
Updated Jun. 19

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Lightning center Anthony Cirelli’s numbers this season haven’t done an adequate job of measuring his contributions, mainly because he does so many things that don’t show up on a score sheet.

Take the Lightning’s Game 3 win over the Islanders on Thursday in their league semifinal series. Center Brayden Point scored the winning goal with 20 seconds remaining in the second period, but it was Cirelli who filled the crease, preventing defenseman Nick Leddy from making a play on the puck and screening goalie Semyon Varlamov’s view of Point’s shot in the process.

It’s little things like that — whether it’s a faceoff win or a puck battle or a heady defensive play — that have put Cirelli in the Selke Trophy (best defensive forward) conversation every season.

“It’s guys making big plays in big moments, and Cirelli seems to do that,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “Look at that game winner. He’s right on top of everything, and he’s just one of those players that does all those little things that never do make the front page of the paper. … There are those times when he scores those big goals, which he did for us last year. Tony’s an invaluable player on our team.”

The Islanders know Cirelli well. His overtime goal in Game 6 of last year’s Eastern Conference final sent the Lightning to the Stanley Cup final. This postseason, Cirelli had three goals in 14 entering Game 4 with the Islanders on Saturday night, as many goals as he had in 25 games last year. He scored in back-to-back games in the first-round series against the Panthers and had a winning goal in Game 2 of the second-round series against the Hurricanes.

Cirelli, 23, is in his third full season with the Lightning. He had an incredible start to the year offensively, scoring four goals (including two winning ones) and 10 points in his first 12 games before an injury against the Panthers sidelined him for two weeks. He came back and logged seven points in his next eight games.

The well eventually went dry for Cirelli, and 28 games passed without a goal before he scored in Game 3 against the Panthers.

Lightning center Anthony Cirelli ended a 28-game scoring drought with this goal in the first round, beating Panthers goaltender Chris Driedger in Game 3.
Lightning center Anthony Cirelli ended a 28-game scoring drought with this goal in the first round, beating Panthers goaltender Chris Driedger in Game 3. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

“I felt for him a little bit because everybody wants points, everyone wants to score, and I think players sometimes value themselves (on), ‘Did I get points?’ and that should never be the case,” Cooper said.

“But as we’ve moved into the playoffs now, he’s playing such a pivotal role for us And it’s not as much with the puck. But if you look at some of these big goals we’ve been scoring, Tony seems to find his way in that mess, and he creates havoc.”

With the Lightning clinging to a 1-0 lead in the second period Thursday and Nassau Coliseum coming to life when the Islanders were awarded a power play, Cirelli’s hustle and positioning might have saved a goal.

The Lightning’s penalty kill was caught in a line change, creating the makings of a 3-on-1 for the Islanders. But Cirelli sped off the bench and into the neutral zone, and blocked off a passing lane to wing Jordan Eberle as he was skating toward the near post.

Cirelli then immediately circled out and made a diving block on forward Brock Nelson’s wrister.

“We go out there to do a good job, and I think everyone does that,” Cirelli said. “Every single guy on our team is putting their body on the line, from the (defense) to the forwards. Numerous guys are blocking shots.

“We continue to keep growing and just keep playing for one another.”

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

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