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Haggs: ‘Cliffy Hockey’ Taking Big Step Up For Bruins This Season

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There have been plenty of Boston Bruins players that have exceeded expectations amidst a phenomenal opening month of hockey.

Hampus Lindholm played like a Norris Trophy contender, and David Pastrnak is third in the NHL with 22 points through the first 14 games of the regular season. Nick Foligno also already surpassed the number of goals he scored all of last season while playing over 60 games for the Black and Gold last season. Linus Ullmark has joined luminaries like Tuukka Rask, Tim Thomas, Gerry Cheevers and Ross Brooks while hitting 10 wins this season in just 11 decisions while ranking second in franchise history (36) behind Brooks for the most wins through 50 starts with the Bruins.

There are overachievers up and down the board that are clearly flourishing under the new coaching staff and thriving in a new, wide open system of play. But there may not be anybody that’s consistently played at a higher level, than they did in the past, then veteran Bruins defenseman Connor Clifton, who is playing the best hockey of his pro career.

Clifton now has one goal after becoming the 18th different Boston Bruins player to score a goal this season in Thursday night’s 3-1 win over the Calgary Flames at TD Garden, and now has one goal and six points along with a plus-5 rating in 14 games. The goal was a great hockey play where Clifton followed up the rebound of his own shot while Nick Foligno tied up bodies at the front of the net freeing up time and space to make the scoring play.

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But that’s not even close to telling the story of a formerly bottom pair defensemen under Bruce Cassidy that’s played over 21 minutes of ice time per game this season while the team started the season without Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk.

It’s a far cry from last season when Clifton was scratched for stretches in November and December, and ultimately lost his confidence for most of the season while struggling to earn the trust of head coach Bruce Cassidy. It all came back late in the year when Clifton was paired with Derek Forbort in a truly effective bottom pairing just prior to the start of the playoffs, but it was the kind of crossroads season that forced Clifton to ask himself some hard questions following last year.

Gone this season are the inconsistencies, the head-scratching mistakes and the drop in play from the past when Clifton started putting together consecutive games played.

“I felt like for the last couple years, I haven’t taken a step forward in my career,” Clifton said. “I’ve been in the same role. I’ve been playing the same way. I’d get scratched 20-plus games. Then I’d play great in the playoffs. It’s like, ‘Why can’t I just play great to start the year?’

“Then with a couple injuries and some opportunity, I just inherited this year some more ice time and more of a role. I think it’s been great. It’s definitely helped my confidence. I hope I can just play that way even when we’re at full strength.”

The number were down to 19:28 of ice time in Thursday’s win with McAvoy and Grzelcyk both back in action, but it was a punishing nearly 20 minutes as old friend Milan Lucic found out the hard way when he hammered him against the boards. Or how Michael Bunting found out last weekend when Clifton went old time hockey with his defensive coverage in front of the Boston net.

Certainly, everybody recognizes that as part of Cliffy Hockey, a hard-to-play-against style that combines physicality with the ability to sometimes surprise with offensive creativity and playmaking.

“Cliffy Hockey, baby. Cliffy Hockey!” said Charlie McAvoy of his D-man peer after making his season debut against Calgary. “He has an exceptional compete level, confidence. It’s something we’ve seen for a long time here, with just how special he is. A little bit of opportunity was all he really needed to kind of explode.”

And explode he has, playing at a level that could make him a ton of money as Clifton is in the last year of a contract with the Boston Bruins paying him $1 million per season. With career NHL earnings under $5 million to this point in his NHL body of work, the 27-year-old could be making that on a yearly basis on his next contract if he continues to play this new, effective version of Cliffy Hockey at a top-4 defensemen level of play.

“One, he’s a real gifted athlete as far as how much ice he can handle,” said Jim Montgomery. “Two, he’s really competitive. Three, he plays the game like he loves it. I think that’s why everybody in the room, the coaching staff and the Bruins fans love him. Because he’s always playing the game to win. That’s why you play.”

Nobody probably wants to admit it at this point, but Clifton’s emergence (and contract situation) this season may have been part of the season that the Boston Bruins were hot on the trail of the doomed Mitchell Miller signing. Clifton may be pricing himself out of Boston’s ability to keep him based on the way he’s playing, and the Boston Bruins need to find a right-shot defenseman capable of playing top-4 minutes and giving the team a spark from the back end at the same low, low price tag that Cliffy Hockey operates at nightly for the Black and Gold this season.

Certainly, Clifton deserves a ton of credit for where the Boston Bruins stand at the top of the NHL despite missing their best defenseman to start the season.

Either way, now is the time to enjoy Clifton playing at the height of his game entering his prime years where it all seems to be coming together at a defenseman position where there are many late bloomers. Cliffy Hockey is a big time hit for the Black and Gold that seems to be getting better and better with each passing game.

 

Joe Haggerty has covered the Boston Bruins and the NHL for 18 years with NBC Sports Boston, WEEI.com, the Boston Metro and the Woburn Daily Times, and currently serves as lead Bruins reporter and columnist for Boston Hockey Now. Haggs always strives to capture the spirt of the thing any way that he can.

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Cliton’s progress has made Grzelcyk expendable! I like Clifton’s physical game which offers something that the B’s have lacked in over the past few years.

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