RALEIGH, N.C. — He’s still in the infancy of his career, so no one is mass-producing “Cliffy Hockey” T-shirts. If someone does, Connor Clifton won’t be asking for royalties. He’d be happy to sign a few.
“I don’t mind it,” he said of his nickname. “It’s funny. Torey [Krug], all the time, is like ‘Cliffy Hockey, let’s go.’”
Clifton, who was 11th in line for playing time among Bruins Boston’s defensemen this season, has become one of their its top six in the playoffs, adding to his budding legend. “Cliffy Hockey” did not begin with his first career goal, which came in Sunday’s Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals. It didn’t start last Nov. 16, when he roamed around like a wild horse in Dallas and fought veteran Jason Spezza in his NHL debut.
We trace it to 2017, soon after the former Quinnipiac captain signed an AHL deal with the Bruins affiliate in Providence. In practices that preseason, his reckless rushes up the ice and catch-them-off-guard passes helped him separate him from those playing a more conventional game.
He believes Providence P-Bruins teammate Kenny Agostino gave him the “Cliffy Hockey” tag, as a play on freewheeling former Texas A&M quarterback “Johnny Football” Manziel, and wizardly ex-Boston College star “Johnny Hockey” Gaudreau.
As he watched the rookies skate two summers ago, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy didn’t know about Clifton’s nickname. He was trying to figure out what position the kid played.
“I thought he was a winger more than a defenseman at first,” said Cassidy. “He was up and down the ice the whole time. ,” Cassidy said. “He always had that in him, his willingness to try and make a play.”
Clifton made the Bruins’ lead 3-0 in Game 2 by rushing into the zone and waiting near the goal to finish a pass from Marcus Johansson. He picked his spot, which is something he did not always do.
“You want to make an impression,” Clifton recalled Tuesday before Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final against Carolina. “In the rookie tournament, that’s where I was playing a crazy game. Everyone’s all over the place. There’s no structure. That’s where it started. In one of those tournaments, you want to make plays, you want to score.”
Clifton has focused his efforts this postseason on playing solid defense, and despite his size (5 feet 11 inches, 175 pounds), being physical. For a third-pair rookie defenseman with 29 games under his belt, he is more than holding his own.
In 10 postseason games, Clifton has been on the ice for seven even-strength goals and four against. The Bruins , who have controlled play throughout this postseason, have 52 percent of the shot attempts when he is on the ice. Clifton, who skated with Zdeno Chara in Game 1 because with Charlie McAvoy was suspended, in Game 1, has benefited from having Matt Grzelcyk’s excellent work on his left side.
Cassidy still has to remind him to calm down.
“Every once in a while,” Clifton said. “I’m an aggressive player and I want to play that way. At the same time, I don’t want to give up any chances. Sometimes he comes down and says, ‘Settle down,’ you know, ‘simple,’ kind of thing. That always helps.”
When he lets it go, the one-time Arizona property (drafted 133rd overall, fifth round, 2013) has made some entertaining plays. Before his late-season call-up, Clifton walked through AHL Hershey to set up with a power-play goal on March 8. It was the play he recalledwhen asked to name a quintessential “Cliffy Hockey” moment.
Wheeling up the middle, Clifton gained the zone and beat a wall of defenders by throwing the puck between his legs and circling around the net. He dangled the goaltender and nearly stuffed it short-side. Moments later, the puck came to him at the faceoff dot, and he threaded it through two defenders for a tap-in.
“The guys were loving that one,” he said.
His Providence teammates also got a kick out of Clifton -- a defenseman since his youth, when he was a Rangers fan in Matawan, N.J -- filling in at forward during a grueling three-in-three weekend.
“We played Friday, Saturday, and Sunday,” he said, “and Sunday I showed up and I was a winger.”
The 24-year-old would have taken any job in September. The Bruins considered former first-rounders Urho Vaakanainen and Jakub Zboril and second-rounder Jeremy Lauzon worthy of the longest looks in training camp. Clifton waited until November, when injuries to five regular blue liners (Zdeno Chara, Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Kevan Miller, John Moore) and prospect Vaakanainen led the Bruins to summon him to Dallas on an emergency recall.
He had an eventful debut, logging 18:53, and recording nine minutes in penalties and a takedown of a veteran (Spezza) who was messing with him. His confidence has continued to grow.
“It was nice to get it,” he said of his first career goal. “But now just keep competing, winning battles and playing simple.”