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Anthony Cirelli returns to the Tampa Bay Lightning line-up tonight against the Toronto Maple Leafs

Tony Two Goals is back on the ice.

NHL: JUN 26 Stanley Cup Finals - Game six - Avalanche at Lightning Photo by Andrew Bershaw /Icon_Sportswire

The last time we saw Anthony Cirelli on the ice in a competitive setting was in Game Six of the Stanley Cup Final against the Colorado Avalanche on June 26th. He played 12:47, had one shot on goal and blocked a couple of shots. According to the game log, his final recorded act was with 2:23 left in the game (and season) when he threw a hit on Colorado defenseman Bowen Bryam.

Since then he’s had shoulder surgery and five months of rehab, along with five months of thinking about getting back on the ice with his Tampa Bay Lightning teammates. Tonight, that journey is finally over and the 25-year-old will be in the line-up for the first time this season as the Lightning take on the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Based on the lines from the morning skate it appears that Cirelli will be lining up between Vlad Namestnikov and Ross Colton on the third line. With the production of the top-six over the last month Coach Cooper doesn’t want to break those lines up just yet. It also allows him to control Cirelli’s minutes as his young centerman works his way back into game shape.

For the Lightning they will be getting back an elite defensive center and a key penalty killer. From the 2019-20 season until last year, whenever Cirelli was on the ice, offense disappeared for his opponents.

Evolving Hockey

Over those three seasons he’s posted a 2.11 expected goals against per 60 minutes, which ranks 23rd among the 222 forwards who have played at least 2,000 minutes at 5v5 during that time. His 27.13 shots against are a top 20 number as is 37.35 unblocked shots against number. Both of those last two numbers are second on the Lighting over that time frame behind Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.

With Cirelli back in the line-up, the overall forward unit is stronger. Cole Koepke was the odd-man out and was re-assigned to Syracuse earlier in the morning. Corey Perry was reunited with his School Bus linemates after a few games up on the third line. More importantly, Coach Cooper regains one of his most relied upon penalty killers. Over the last three years Cirelli has logged almost 452 minutes shorthanded. Only Bellemare were on the ice more and that was only by about seven minutes. With the way the shorthanded team has been struggling of late, he is a welcome addition to the line-up.

While defense is his bread and butter, Cirelli isn’t a slacker on offense. Outside of the 2020-21 season where he only scored nine goals, he’s a threat to put 15-20 in the net over an 82-game season, with most of those coming at even strength. If the Lightning had traded for a player with the production Cirelli can put up, fans would be ecstatic. He is basically a second-line center that will be playing on the third line (for now). He should add a nice boost to a team that really needed to add to its depth.

Evolving Hockey