BOSTON — Anthony Cirelli was never drafted into the Ontario Hockey League. Deemed way too small and a touch too slow, he battled his way onto the Oshawa Generals roster as a walk-on just months before scoring the 2015 Memorial Cup-winning goal in overtime.
In other words, he’s a perfect fit for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“Well, I mean, he’s just Mr. Reliable,” Steven Stamkos said of his 20-year-old teammate, who scored a big goal in Wednesday’s 4-1 victory over the Boston Bruins. “He’s very comfortable in his style of game. He knows what he has to bring. You never really have to tell him to do anything, he just does it.”
The Lightning are an organization with a clear identity. They don’t try to jam square pegs into round holes. What Steve Yzerman and Julien BriseBois are willing to do more than most is look past some of the attributes a player doesn’t possess — be it size, pedigree or hype — and focus instead on those they do.
That means Tampa is always in the market for strong-minded gamers known for digging in and finding a way — players like Cirelli and Yanni Gourde, who delivered a clinical performance in Game 3 at TD Garden to help them grab a 2-1 lead in this second-round series.
Keep in mind that Cirelli only made his NHL debut on March 1. He’s already carved out a role on the Lightning penalty kill, where he failed to get a clear Wednesday before Patrice Bergeron scored to give Boston a shot of hope after a dreadful start to Game 3.
Do you know what happened his very next time over the boards? Cirelli drove hard to the slot area, took a pass from Gourde and followed up on his own rebound to beat Tuukka Rask for his first career goal in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“Here you have a young kid — his feet are barely wet in the NHL — and … he didn’t shy away from the moment or sit back and say ‘I wish I would have got that out, maybe they wouldn’t have scored,'” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “He just went out there and said ‘You know what, I’m going to will my way to score a goal.’
“Right there said everything to me about that kid.”
It’s the kind of recipe you need to go on a long playoff run. The Lightning have seen their top line of J.T. Miller, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov get off to a slow start in this series — Stamkos did hit the empty net on Wednesday — but they’ve still managed to control a surprising amount of the play against the NHL’s top possession team from the regular season.
Tampa has taken 57.1 per cent of the even-strength shot attempts through three games and created 65.8 per cent of the high-danger scoring chances.
In Game 3, they generated all kinds of speed on the forecheck to force Boston into poor decisions. The Lightning got to the home plate area in front of Rask’s crease for two Ondrej Palat goals in the opening 3:19 and again for the dagger from Cirelli before the first intermission.
“I think their ‘D’ sensed the pressure and then they turned the puck over a little bit,” said forward Cedric Paquette. “That’s how we got our chances.”
No wonder Boston coach Bruce Cassidy was left lamenting what he deemed to be a “slow” and “stubborn” performance. Games in this arena are usually a carnival featuring Bruins players zipping around the offensive zone while the frothing crowd leaves opponents feeling like the walls are caving in.
There was none of that in a potential swing game in this series. Instead, the Lightning gamers flexed their will for a full 60 minutes.
“We’re in a playoff series and we’re playing like that,” said Cooper. “We’re skating, we’re physically engaged. They’re just playing responsible and that’s what you want. It’s hard to do — to amp yourself up, game after game after game. It’s a tough thing to do.
“These guys, they’ve just found a way. I guess in the end they’re just putting the team first — putting team before self — that’s what’s going on right now.”
It’s a hallmark of what they stand for. You could see it in Paquette’s willingness to drop the gloves with David Backes after he laid out Dan Girardi with a hit on the numbers. Then there was the endless energy from Gourde, who only arrived in Boston around noon on Wednesday following the birth of his daughter Emma.
Cooper said that Gourde was waiting in the meal room when the players returned from the morning skate and the scene looked like a game-winning goal had been scored with the way his teammates reacted.
Then you had the baby-faced Cirelli, who drew three penalties on the night while chipping in the big goal and putting five shots on net. All in less than 12 minutes of work.
“His attitude — he wants to belong, he wants to be a part of this team,” said Cooper. “He’s been accepted by the team just because he does all the little things right. I was so pumped when he scored that goal.”
He wasn’t alone. The Lightning are playing for each other and playing like a team that’s going to be awfully difficult to put down.