American Hockey League

Clifton making impression for Bruins

BOSTON — Connor Clifton usually starts out flying a bit under the radar, but it doesn’t take long for the Boston Bruins rookie defenseman to make an impression wherever he goes.

Clifton did it again Monday, sparking the Bruins in a come-from-behind 4-2 victory against the St. Louis Blues in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden. He scored Boston’s first goal at 2:16 of the second period, giving life to his team and the home crowd, and was named Third Star of the Game.

It’s the same everywhere for Clifton. People quickly take notice, whether it is because of his burning will to win and how that is reflected in his physical style or because of the high-risk, high-reward chances he sometimes takes in the offensive zone.

[RELATED: Complete Bruins vs. Blues series coverage]

Clifton arrived at Bruins training camp last season and found himself matched against veteran David Backes, a prototypical NHL power forward. Clifton (5-foot-11, 175 pounds) went toe-to-toe with Backes, who is four inches taller and 40 pounds heavier.

“I was an 11-year vet and he was a new guy on the scene, and he didn’t pull any punches with me,” said Backes, who sits in a neighboring stall in the locker room and has gotten to know Clifton better during the past few months. “He was going after me. I was a little [upset] at first, but then take a step back and say that is the kind of kid [who] has the drive and the ability to make an impact because he has that inner burning fire whoever he is against.”

Joel Edmundson learned the same lesson the hard way Monday. The 6-foot-4 Blues defenseman thought he had Clifton tied up when he pinched into the offensive zone during a rush by Bruins center Sean Kuraly. Instead, Clifton powered to the net and was able to get enough of Kuraly’s pass to redirect it past goalie Jordan Binnington.

“I didn’t see [the puck],” Clifton said. “I saw the pass come across and then I didn’t see it. I felt it hit me and then it went up and then I saw guys [celebrating] and knew it was a good goal.”

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

That blend of tenaciousness, recklessness and skill was dubbed “Cliffy Hockey” when he was playing for Providence of the American Hockey League. Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy has appropriated the nickname and has learned to live with some of the mistakes inherent in the sometimes freewheeling play of the 24-year-old.

After all, he’s still learning.

Clifton signed an AHL contract with Providence on Aug. 16, 2017, then was scratched multiple times in his first season. He began this season 11th on Boston’s depth chart for defensemen, but played 19 NHL games because of injuries. Clifton has parlayed that audition into a regular role during the Stanley Cup Playoffs; he’s played in 13 of Boston’s 18 games and has four points (two goals, two assists) after managing one assist during the regular season.

“He’s a gamer,” Cassidy said. “I think he competes hard, has lots of courage. He’s slowly found what he can do at this level, what makes him successful. I think he’s a real effective player with his feet moving because the game comes a little bit naturally when he’s moving. When he’s not moving he’s an average player, and that’s when he can get exposed.”

Clifton played during his teenage years at Christian Brothers Academy, near his hometown of Matawan, New Jersey. The school has produced several NHL players, including Philadelphia Flyers forward James van Riemsdyk, Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk and San Jose Sharks defenseman Joakim Ryan. Clifton’s older brother, Tim, three years his senior, plays for San Jose of the AHL.

Video: CAR@BOS, Gm2: Clifton pads lead with first NHL goal

Ryan Bogan, who left the school this season, coached all of them. But few rivaled Clifton when it came to drive and fearlessness.

“He played like a monster in high school,” said Bogan, who admits he’s wondered which level would become too big a challenge for Clifton’s slight frame. He’s still waiting.

Asked to sum up what makes Clifton special as a player, Bogan recalled a rare regular-season loss. The team was playing uninspired against Brick High School and allowed the game’s first three goals. Clifton scored two highlight-reel goals and hit the post, but the comeback fell short in a 3-2 loss.

“He was all over the ice and always had the puck in that game,” Bogan said. “It wasn’t because he was being selfish, it was that he basically decided that if the other guys weren’t going to play hard, he was going to go out there and do it. He refuses to lose, and he won’t quit. That’s just who he is.”

Those traits have served Clifton well during his journey to the NHL, which included stops with the New Jersey Hitmen (United States Premier Hockey League), USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, Quinnipiac University and Providence.

At each level, he’s had to make a name for himself, forced to show again that his blend of skill and passion can be an asset.

“It’s been a journey, and I think I have been working for it my whole life,” Clifton said. “You dream about playing in the NHL and you don’t know if it is a possibility until a certain level. When you get to that level, everything changes.

“This whole journey, I really embraced it. Each new coach, each new set of guys, you just want to learn from them. Everyone brings a different thing to the table. Each set of valleys you hit along the journey, you have someone that is going to help you through it, and that is what is great about the hockey world.”

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