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Cliffy Hockey Making Its Mark

Rookie blue liner has been a revelation during Bruins Stanley Cup run

by Michael Tolvo @NHLBruins /

BOSTON - "Well he's certainly not afraid to get involved."

The words of Bruce Cassidy following the Bruins' Game 1 victory in the Stanley Cup Final aptly describe rookie defenseman Connor Clifton. 

Last September at the 2018 Prospects Challenge in Buffalo, Connor Clifton was jockeying for position within the organization alongside fellow Bruins prospects. The then 23-year-old was most definitely not afraid to get involved.

As the story goes, Providence Bruins head coach Jay Leach - manning the bench at the Prospects Challenge - noticed Clifton rankling the forwards for not doing their jobs. Leach decided to give him a chance to show them how it should be done. Clifton was moved up to wing.

A few minutes later, Clifton flew up the ice and scored - and let the rest of the forward group hear it.

"You have players that will surprise and rise to the occasion," said Bruins GM Don Sweeney ahead of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. "And Connor, look, he's a game kid. Right from Day 1, the way [head coach] Bruce [Cassidy] described it, he didn't know if he was going to be a forward or a defensemen when he was playing."

Putting The Work In

When Clifton began the year in Providence, at times playing on the third defense-pairing, he was known to play with a reckless abandon. His assertiveness and skating were some of his biggest strengths, but his game lacked the structure to make the jump to the NHL.

"We noticed that when we first saw him and it was almost a detriment at times," said Cassidy of Clifton's overzealous nature. "We saw him at a rookie camp in Buffalo, so he's learned when to go, when to be a good support person on the rush."

While few in the organization thought Clifton would see NHL action in 2018-19, a slew of injuries forced the New Jersey native into action with the big club. Clifton made his NHL debut on Nov. 16 in Dallas and would play nine games in his first stint in the NHL. The 5-foot-11 blueliner continued to work on his craft in Providence, and in March he was called up again, this time for good.

"Connor plays to his strengths and then he's put structure in his game," said Sweeney. "He's bought into what we've asked him to do and he's had some success as a result. Those are good stories, really good stories, and important ones for the success of any organization."

Video: Clifton scores 2nd of playoffs in G1 win

Clifton, who began the year as low as 12th on the Bruins depth chart, now finds himself in the lineup as a key cog in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.

"I think the lesson is for all players," said Sweeney. "The next player who is looking for his opportunity. Your part of an organization for a lot of reasons. You've been identified, the work is just beginning. Really everybody gets to the start line and who's willing to do the things that in the moment, that team needs you to do.

"Some guys rise to that, some guys go in and accept the responsibility that's being asked of them in the moment and they'll move forward and some guys won't. They'll see themselves in a different way. That's how you can carve out a career. Good for Connor and good for us."

Trusting His Instincts

Clifton quickly endeared himself to his teammates with both his fun style of play and his character off the ice. Whether it is blazing through an end-to-end rush or laying a booming hit on a bigger opponent, Clifton has a tendency to make plays that catch people's attention. His fellow Bruins often describe their young defenseman's playing style with two simple words: Cliffy Hockey. 

"It's one of the reasons he's here," said Cassidy. "Because he can, he's got good hockey IQ, he's learned when to go, when to be conservative, when to pick the right spot without being risky, without putting us at a disadvantage. Kind of slides in there. All of a sudden, he's there. Obviously, that's smarts and it's also foot speed. He's a better skater I think than people realize. He's stronger on his feet than I think the people realize. When I say people, I mean the opposition.

"I think that's what allows him to be there and he's got a little bit of that, they call it 'Cliffy Hockey.' He just plays. He plays on his instinct and right now his instincts are good to him and it's working."

Video: STL@BOS, Gm1: Cassidy on Clifton, Game 1 comeback

Blueline Burying

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final did not begin as the Bruins had hoped. Brayden Schenn got the Blues on the board in the first period. St. Louis then capitalized on a Bruins miscue early in the second to capture a 2-0 lead.

Staring at a two-goal deficit, Clifton helped turn the momentum back in Boston's favor. With Sean Kuraly speeding through the middle, Clifton also turned on the jets to get inside position at the back door. A pass from Kuraly glanced off Clifton, who was positioned perfectly to score his second of the playoffs.

Video: STL@BOS, Gm1: Clifton puts Bruins on the board

"He has the ability to separate so he can skate and beat his guy up ice," said Cassidy. "He goes to good spots, that's how he got his goal against Carolina, right in front as well. So good for him. Real timely goal for him, he was a little fortunate, but his stick was on the ice, he was ready for the puck and he got a good bounce on that one. He's certainly a guy that can add some offense to the back end. Sneaky kind of guy, he's not a guy you notice a lot, he's not flashy but he's certainly good out there." Video: CAR@BOS, Gm2: Clifton pads lead with first NHL goal

The adversity of overcoming injuries early in the season gave the Bruins faith in every individual in the lineup.

"We've had a lot of injuries this year," said goalie Tuukka Rask. "Guys have had to step up and they've really relished that role and taken it upon themselves to be leaders and be difference makers, so it really doesn't come as a surprise to any of us on the team, you know, that's what it's all about. You just go out there, you make the plays, and you play within your skills and it shows. Like today, you saw Cliffy's [Connor Clifton] goal - he plays fearless and it's great to see; great character as a young player."

The blue line wasn't done scoring, as Charlie McAvoy scored later in the period to tie it up.

"That's the NHL today," said fellow defenseman Torey Krug. "If you get contributions from your backline, if you get contributions from your bottom 6 forwards, you're going win a lot of hockey games and you're going to have a chance to go far in the playoffs. And that's what we've had up to this point and that's what we had tonight. And that's why we won the game. It's crucial."

 Video: Torey Krug talks contribution from back end

Keeping It Simple

When asked if he liked the Bruins response to the 2-0 deficit, Clifton kept his answer short.

"Yeah we weren't pretty hot at first, but we weren't expected to be," said Clifton. "Obviously 11 days off, long time, but thought we came out okay, and then even better in the second."

What did he see on his goal?

"I saw 3-on-2 and I just saw an opportunity to go to the net and luckily it hit off my foot and went in."

And what is the mindset going into Game 2?

"I think we need to be a little better and I think we will be."

It's clear that Clifton likes to keep things simple. Whether that is on or off the ice, the Bruins have no problem with the results. Welcome to Cliffy Hockey, where simple is never boring.

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