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Morning After Thoughts: Anthony Cirelli is another mid-round gem for the Lightning

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Cirellke is his name from now on.

New York Islanders v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images

In a game that Tampa Bay controlled 53% of the shot attempts at 5v5, and won the quality battle with an xGF% of 58%, the talk wasn’t so much about defeating the stingy New York Islanders by a score of 3-1 for the first time all season; it centered around the workman like effort from Anthony Cirelli—yet another mid-round pick who has blossomed for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Late in the second period, Mathew Barzal—who recently dethroned Connor McDavid as the fastest player in the NHL during All-Star weekend—sprung free for a breakaway. At least, that’s what he thought until a herculean defensive effort from Cirelli negated the entire sequence.

His teammates effused praise on the young forward.

“It’s huge to stop a guy with that much talent on a breakaway,” Brayden Point said. “He’s so good defensively and does that all the time, not necessarily on breakaways, but he’s so good at stripping pucks. First, you’ve got to catch the guy, and Barzy has wicked speed. You saw it at the All-Star Game, so to work back is the first thing. A guy with that much skill, he’s going to feel which side you’re on and work for the puck, but it was a real slick play. It’s like a big block, gets the bench energized. It was a huge point in the game.”

“He’s such a good two-way player,” Victor Hedman said. “It’s not a surprise to see him do that.” The towering Swede also joked that it was a “panic-play” for Cirelli at the same time.

From Cirelli’s perspective, he was more low-key about the sequence, “I think I got caught there on the wrong side and you have to get back there and help out Vas...just tried my best and got my stick on it, and obviously pretty cool feeling [with the cheering] from the fans.”

When asked about his thought process on the play Cirelli went a little deeper in his response, “I was just kind of waiting for him to open up his blade for the shot. Kind of lucky there to get a stick on him at the end. I was running out of space there and was trying to make a push for it. I knew Vasy was gonna save it anyways.”

The thing I noticed more than anything on the play was how Cirelli didn’t allow Barzal any chance of a forehand shot. If Barzal was going to get the shot off it was going to be from his backhand. Take note of Cirelli’s stick check right as Barzal was attempting to shift from his backhand to forehand—that’s key. It forces Barzal to try and reset, but Cirelli quickly slides his stick underneath Barzal’s and muscles the puck away.

That’s textbook backchecking and stick checking from Tampa Bay’s best defensive forward (and arguably one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL).

So far the 22 year old center has had a great sophomore season for the Lightning with 39 points (tied with his career high from last season), which is sixth best on the team. He’s also only five goals off his career high of 19 (also from last season), and is on pace to score 21 goals this season.

He also drives possession for the Lightning while tackling the toughest defensive matchups for the team. At 5v5, he controls 51% of the shot attempts and generates an xGF% of 55% at 5v5. Add in his penalty killing ability and Cirelli becomes a matchup headache for any coach to deal with.

The past three games alone showcase how strong of a matchup issue Cirelli has become. Cirelli has seen primary matchups against Barzal, Sidney Crosby, and Mark Stone over the past week and all three of those players were held off the scoreboard and kept in check in regards to their regular playmaking abilities. This isn’t new for him either—Cirelli has been Jon Cooper’s shutdown center since opening day of the season.

“There isn’t much more to say about Tony and his play and his never give up attitude. Barzal’s a pretty quick little player and for him to track him down from behind and be able to make that play without taking a penalty...it was something that the guys on the bench really appreciated.” Cooper said during his post game presser.

It wasn’t a surprise to see many Lightning faithful proclaim “Cirellke” or “Cirsellke” after his play in the second period. He’s been that good, and deserves some recognition. I’d expect some Frank Selke Trophy votes for him this season.

Extras

  • Tampa Bay became the first team this season with four 20-goal scorers (Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn, and Point).
  • This is just my opinion, but I get the feeling Cameron Gaunce won’t see a game with the Lightning and we’ll end up seeing Cal Foote receive a call up this week and get an audition. Again, just a hunch.
  • The Lightning’s play while down two of their regular defensemen (Jan Rutta and Ryan McDonagh) was solid this evening. As a whole they did exactly what they needed to do. Some issues in certain situations, but they managed.
  • Saw Ryan McDonagh after the game and I’m assuming he’s out for at least the next week or two. Don’t think the Lightning believe it to be a long-term thing.
  • Yanni Gourde’s goalless streak is now at 34-games and counting. Hopefully he can rip that monkey off his back soon—I miss those Yanni GIFs.
  • Since December 23rd, Tampa Bay is 18-2-1 and has outscored their opposition 80-40 (one goal was omitted due to the shootout win against the Los Angeles Kings on January 14th because shootouts are stupid and the NHL likes to count the winning goal like it’s the same as a goal scored during regulation or overtime, and I’m not about that life).