TAMPA — Ask around the Lightning locker room about Anthony Cirelli and one word comes up more than others:
But when you listen to his teammates and coaches talk about the 24-year-old forward, you understand their deeper appreciation for him — the passion he plays with on the ice and his unassuming nature off it, how no job is beneath him, how conversations with him can make you smile, laugh and think deeply all in the same breath, and how he will deliver punches to defend teammates or deliver birthday presents to their kids.
“He’s just a money human being on the ice, away from the ice,” assistant coach Derek Lalonde said. “The guys know it, the guys respect it and guys don’t take that for granted. He’s a special one for sure.”
Last month, the team gathered on Easter Sunday at defenseman Ryan McDonagh’s home, with only the Easter Bunny missing. A costume was at the ready, but needed a volunteer. On a team containing so many players with young kids, there weren’t many options.
Like he does with so many roles on the ice, Cirelli jumped in head first. The costume was a little ill-fitting. The top didn’t tie up all the way in the back, the rabbit head bobbled and didn’t hide Cirelli’s hair, so a few kids did double takes.
“Some of the kids were like, ‘That’s not him. That’s not the Easter Bunny,’ because they could see my shoes coming out of the costume,” Cirelli said. “I mean, the head was kind of bopping off and on and off; it was a little big.”
But Cirelli sold it, taking pictures while holding his basket full of eggs, waving and cheering on kids as they went down an inflatable slide.
“It was all fun and games,” Cirelli said. “No question, I was going to do it for sure. ... We have a lot of kids on the team. When I first got here a lot, a lot more now. And I’ve gotten to know all of them a little bit. So it’s nice to just put a smile on their face and just kind of hang out with them.”
And Cirelli got rave reviews from his effort:
“Tony’s always been great around guys with families and little ones and stuff like that,” McDonagh said. “It was a treat for sure. The kids soaked it up. They loved it, and he played the part beautifully.”
In five NHL seasons, Cirelli has established himself as one of the game’s top two-way forwards, constantly in the conversation for the Selke Award.
Whether it’s anchoring a penalty kill unit that’s been one of the best this postseason, hounding pucks in the corner, pushing the pace on the forecheck, roughing up an opponent trying to rattle a teammate, blocking shots on one side of the ice or creating a screen on the in front of the net on the other, Cirelli seems to do it all for the Lightning.
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Cirelli’s spin-o-rama goal in Game 6 of the first-round series win over Toronto was one of the team’s most jaw-dropping plays of the postseason. With center Brayden Point out due to injury the last two games, Cirelli has been moving between the top lines, getting an increased amount of ice time. His 20:41 in Thursday’s second-round Game 2 win over the Panthers was the third-highest among Lightning forwards.
“He’s someone that tries to do everything the right way,” defenseman Zach Bogosian said. “And as a player, obviously you respect how hard he works and he’s a competitor and will literally do anything to win. When you see someone doing that, it’s easy to fall in line or easy to follow, just because you know he’s doing things that not a lot of people would want to do. And he’s doing it a lot of times with a smile on his face or a joking manner about it.”
When he was first starting out, Cirelli would get good-natured ribbing from veteran teammates about how often Lightning coaches would highlight his plays in their film review.
“As a coach, you can never have a favorite, but the guys know I have a favorite,” Lalonde joked. “They pick on me. Early in my career, all of the positive clips were Cirelli and he would just take an absolute beating from the guys after. So I’ve purposely toned that down. But it’s hard not to do that.
“He just cares. He loves the guys, he loves being around the guys. He’s just a guy you want to be around.”
Forward Pat Maroon likes the vocal side of Cirelli, the one who will chirp with his good friend Point in the locker room.
“We all just kind of sit around and get entertained by it,” Maroon said. “He’s got a great personality. He’s a great kid. And that’s what’s so good about our locker room with guys like Anthony ... you can just go off and have a good conversation with them, and it could turn into a deep one or a funny one or something off the charts.”
When asked why his teammates gravitate toward him so much, he shrugs and says his parents, Maria and Rocco, raised him to work hard and treat people right. Cirelli said the team’s bond has grown after the sacrifices needed to win back-to-back Stanley Cups.
“Outside of hockey, if anyone needs anything, they need me to do anything for them, I’m there to help and I think that’s for everyone on our team,” Cirelli said. “If you need a favor or need something here or there, they’re always there for you. ...
“You can see how tight knit of a group that we are. Everyone’s sticking up for each other. We don’t let anyone mess with anyone on our team, especially on the ice. ... I think going through what we went through the last two years has probably made us a lot closer.”
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