Connor Clifton has played five more regular season games than he has playoff games in his young Bruins career. Once an unsung prospect out of Quinnipiac, Clifton has blossomed into an impact performer on the backend in Boston.
Clifton was called up late in the season due to injuries to members of Boston’s blueline and stepped in admirably. He scored the first Bruins goal in the Stanley Cup Final, which kicked off their comeback to win game one.
While Clifton’s stats don’t just off the page, he adds so much that cannot be transcribed in the box score. He has four points in 14 playoff appearances after posting just one assist in 19 regular season contests. To his credit, Clifton boasts an above average Corsi (51.55%) and has been on the ice for eight goals for versus five against at five-on-five play. However, he is a physical presence and possesses good instincts on both ends of the ice. He is deployed frequently in both zones, which is a testament to his two-way game.
In game one, he noticed Sean Kuraly and Noel Acciari striding through the neutral zone on a two-on-two. Clifton accelerated to join the rush, giving the Bruins an advantage and helped isolate the Blues’ defensemen. Kuraly’s pass deflected off of him to open the scoring for the Bruins.
“Well, it’s one of the reasons he’s here,” said Bruce Cassidy, speaking about Clifton’s instincts on the first goal. “Cause 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. So 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.”
Prior to contributing in Boston, Clifton played 107 games for the Providence Bruins after a successful four years at Quinnipiac University. This season in Providence, Clifton found his offensive game, posting 27 points in 53 games. He has been able to gain confidence as a puck mover, which has helped him excel at the NHL level.
“He’s a gamer. I think he competes hard. He’s got lots of courage,” said Bruce Cassidy, speaking on Clifton prior to game one of the Finals. “He’s slowly found what he can do at this level and what makes him successful. Pretty good puck mover. When we first saw him, he was a little reckless for what we thought would be able to get away with at this level, and he’s calmed that down. They’ve done a great job with him in Providence teaching him when to go, when to be a little more conservative. For us, the biggest thing, he’s got to get his motor running. I think he’s real effective player when he’s got his feet moving, because the game comes a little bit naturally for him when he’s moving.”
General Manager Don Sweeney has clearly been impressed by Clifton’s ability to step in and play admirably.
“Connor, look, he’s a game kid. Right from Day 1, the way Bruce described it, he didn’t know if he was going to be a forward or a defensemen when he was playing,” said Sweeney at the pre-series press conference. “Johnny Boychuk was a little bit the same way, he was playing forward when he first got here. But Connor plays to his strengths and then he’s put structure in his game. 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.”
The Bruins still possess a wealth of capable defensemen, something that Sweeney considers to be a priority considering the importance of the position and the injuries that can occur over the course of a season. With the return of veteran staple Kevan Miller, Clifton’s role on the next season’s squad remains to be seen. Whatever next season brings, Clifton has cemented himself as a reliable player who can stabilize any pairing with his strong two-way game.