Cirelli Brings Big Game Experience to Crunch

By Jeremy Houghtaling

Anthony Cirelli is used to the big stage at the junior level.

The center led Oshawa to an Ontario Hockey League championship and won the Memorial Cup with the Generals in 2015. Cirelli won silver with Team Canada at the World Junior Championships last winter, after a trade in January, Cirelli led Erie to another OHL title and trip to the Memorial Cup.

The Syracuse Crunch rookie hopes his experience in big games translates to success at the professional level.

"I've been to the (Memorial Cup) finals a couple times. Losing that second one was kind of hard and losing in the World Junior final there was tough," Cirelli said. "But just being a part of those teams, knowing those guys, playing through long playoff runs and playing those pressure games helped take my development to the next level."

Cirelli has one goal and three assists in five games with Syracuse this season, and is tied to the team lead in points with veteran Cory Conacher. The 20-year-old had three of those points last weekend, including a his first pro goal and an assist in a 4-2 win over Belleville Friday night.

"I thought I've been good in some games and not so good in other games," Cirelli said. "I'm just trying to play consistent, get to the dirty areas, get in front of the net, feed the guys the puck and get open."

Crunch head coach Benoit Groulx has kept Cirelli in the team's top six and uses him in all situations, which has sometimes elevated his ice time over 20 minutes instead of the usual 16 or 17.

"He's a good, reliable player that brings a lot to the table," Groulx said. "He's good on faceoffs, good power play, good PK, good 5-on-5, wins his battles, reads the play well and he's a competitor. He's got many tools in his box, and I think he's got a big, big chance to play in the NHL one day."

In three years in the OHL with Oshawa and Erie, Cirelli amassed 159 points in 181 regular season games. He added 46 points in 48 playoff games, with none being bigger than his overtime game-winner against Kelowna in the 2015 Memorial Cup Finals.

Cirelli was selected to represent Team Canada in the 2017 World Junior Championships, and recorded three goals and four assists in seven games.

At the conclusion of his junior season last spring, Cirelli joined the Crunch and played in all six of Syracuse's Calder Cup Finals games against Grand Rapids. The experience gave the Tampa Bay Lightning's 2015 third-rounder an idea of the intensity and effort it takes at the professional level.

"It was tough, but I felt like I held my own in there and tried to play my game and show them what I can do," Cirelli said.

Like any rookie, Cirelli is still getting acclimated to the bigger, stronger and faster skaters in the AHL. Coming off a season where he was one of the best OHL players in the faceoff circle, Cirelli is also getting used to the draw at the pro level.

"Faceoffs are obviously a lot harder," Cirelli said. "The guys are stronger and they have a little bit better technique, so going into the draw you have to know who you're going up against, you have to know their technique and you've got to be ready for it. It's a little harder, but I just have to adjust and keep going."

For Groulx, there isn't one specific thing Cirelli needs to work on to make the next step to the NHL.

"A little bit of everything — strength, skating, shot," Groulx said. "I think that will come with maturity, but it's something over the years I think he'll improve a lot."

Cirelli is determined to put the work in to get more big game experience at the pro level, whether that is the AHL or NHL.

"I'm just trying to come in here, work as hard as I can, listen to the coaches and get some experience from the older guys," Cirelli said. "I'm just trying to soak it all in."

Pictured: Crunch center Anthony Cirelli makes a pass against the Comets at the Onondaga County War Memorial Saturday.