All summer they battle together and against each other. Lightning center Anthony Cirelli and Maple Leafs right wing Mitch Marner spend hours in the gym and on the ice to make themselves better, working out with a group of NHL players at Noble Sport Performance outside Toronto.
Even during the regular season, the players stay connected. Lightning rookie defenseman Darren Raddysh, who also works out with the group, said the other group members sent him congratulatory texts this month when he got his first points in the NHL.
That camaraderie stops Tuesday when Tampa Bay and Toronto meet in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series.
There will be little more than a nod and a hello, with Cirelli likely being tasked with trying to keep Marner, arguably Toronto’s best player, in check. He will have to if the Lightning hope to get past the Maple Leafs in the first round for the second straight year and closer to a third Stanley Cup title in four years.
“Obviously, it’s been a little bit weirder over the past couple of years,” Cirelli said after the Lightning’s practice Saturday at the TGH Iceplex in Brandon. “Especially last year, we played them in the first round, and it sucks that we’re in the first round (and) one of us is going home.
“It’ll be another good battle. Those are the fun ones to battle, though. We’ve had some throughout the whole summer. We do drills on ice, and we’re battling, and obviously to bring it to NHL levels is fun. … It’s a bit weird, but that’s how it works.”
Because of those battles in the offseason, Cirelli is perhaps the most aware of the challenge Marner poses.
Marner, who sat out last week’s regular-season game against the Lightning, finished one point shy of 100 and was tied for fourth in the NHL in assists with 69. He is one of three players with 30 or more goals and 60-plus assists in each of the last two seasons, along with the Oilers’ Connor McDavid and the Panthers’ Matthew Tkachuk, according to Sportsnet Stats.
Marner, who skates on the Maple Leafs’ top line with center Auston Matthews and left wing Michael Bunting, is considered one of the best defensive forwards in the game, leading the NHL in takeaways with 104.
“He’s one of the best players in the league,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “So creative with the puck. He’s elusive. He’s really, really smart as well. We just can’t be chasing him all around the rink. We’ve got to plan to be the structure we’re in, but in the end, you’re just hoping to contain these guys.
Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene
Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
“You’re not going to completely shut them down, because they’re too gifted. But if we can contain them, put them in positions that might be a little more uncomfortable for them, that’s what we have to do.”
Cirelli has seen first-hand how Marner has committed himself to ending the Maple Leafs’ 17 seasons of not winning a playoff series.
“Obviously just the skill set that he has, he’s working on it every single day,” Cirelli said. “The big thing for him, he’s one of the hardest-working guys that I know. In the gym over the summer, I mean every single day he’s bringing it, and he’s going as hard as you can. So you can see why it translates on the ice.
“Just the way he plays, the plays that he makes, the skill that he has, the shot he has, his edge work, he’s skating a lot of work on his edges, it’s all so good. We know how much work he puts in the gym, which translates, and you can see how unreal a player he is.”
Contact Kristie Ackert at email@example.com.
• • •
Sign up for Lightning Strikes, a weekly newsletter from Bolts beat writer Eduardo A. Encina that brings you closer to the ice.
Never miss out on the latest with the Bucs, Rays, Lightning, Florida college sports and more. Follow our Tampa Bay Times sports team on Twitter and Facebook.