TAMPA — The Lightning were careful to ease center Anthony Cirelli back into the lineup Saturday against the Maple Leafs in what was his first game in 160 days. But when the game was on the line, Cirelli was at center ice taking the faceoff to open the 3-on-3 overtime session.
Cirelli played just 12:51 of the Lightning’s 4-3 win in his return from offseason shoulder surgery, but he was on the ice for some of the most important minutes down the stretch after getting his legs back under him, showing a glimpse of the spark the return of one of the league’s top two-way centers can provide the Lightning.
For about 3-1/2 of the final 16 minutes of regulation — after the Lightning took a 3-2 lead — Cirelli played between Vladislav Namestnikov and Pat Maroon on a lockdown line that kept the Auston Matthews line without a shot on goal during that stretch.
“He’s such a difference-maker out there, and he brings such a different element to the game that a lot of people don’t do,” Maroon said. “He wins every 50/50 puck, he’s in every battle. ... I just feel like when you insert someone like that, he’s such a special player that a lot of people probably don’t take recognition of.”
When Saturday’s game went to overtime, Lightning coach Jon Cooper sent out Cirelli against Matthews and Mitch Marner, Toronto’s leading scorer. The Lightning won on the first shift of overtime, with Cirelli pushing the puck up the ice and earning the only assist on Alex Killorn’s winner 33 seconds into the extra session.
“Yeah, I was kind of surprised he started us out there,” Cirelli said Monday. “But, obviously, we wanted the job done, so I was trusting my legs, trusting my shoulder, everything was good. At that point, you’re just going out there playing hockey, and that’s something I’ve been doing my whole life.”
It’s been a long road back for Cirelli, who played through the shoulder injury he sustained during the Eastern Conference final. Just a week ago, after most of his teammates had left the morning skate in Buffalo, he was on the ice for nearly 90 minutes working to regain his usual form — winning puck battles, regaining confidence in his shoulder both delivering and taking hits, taking faceoffs and getting his legs in game shape.
“The way he plays, the way he practices, he’s one of those engine-type of players,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “His work ethic is contagious. He’s a huge part of our team, what he can do on both sides of the puck and on special teams on that PK. So much work goes on behind the scenes that a lot of people don’t see, and we see the work that he’s putting in and it’s been impressive.”
Cirelli’s two-way game has been such a key piece to the Lightning’s success, but three deep postseason runs took a physical toll on the 25-year-old. His lengthy recovery gave him time to train while he rehabbed his shoulder.
“This is probably my longest summer training that I’ve had over the past couple seasons,” Cirelli said. “You never want to have to go through surgery and miss time, but if you look at the positive, I was able to get a lot of training done since we haven’t had long summers the past couple of years. So it’s been good in that aspect. But it’s been kind of a long, long time, but it was something I had to do.”
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Entering Saturday’s game, everyone from Cooper to Stamkos tempered their expectations for Cirelli’s season debut, cautioning that it takes even the best players time to get back into game form. Cirelli admitted to being nervous early, but it wasn’t long before he started to look like himself.
“It was all about his puck play and his time and space, but it only took one period,” Cooper said. “He was great.”
In addition to locking down some of the Leafs’ most dangerous players when it mattered most, Cirelli had the primary assist on two of Tampa Bay’s four goals, also setting up Namestnikov in the first period.
The Lightning still plan to gradually increase Cirelli’s ice time. He played just 2:12 on the penalty kill, and he’ll have a bigger role there in time. Not only does he give the team a bonafide lockdown center, he helps make the Lightning more dangerous across all four lines.
“I think to have him back, period, is a big plus,” Lightning assistant coach Jeff Blashill said. “He’s got the ability, whoever he’s matched with, he has the ability to shut guys down. … I think he makes us a much harder team to match against having him in the lineup. It gives us three lines that, in one way or another. the other team has to think about.”
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