BOSTON — With each passing game, Connor Clifton is proving he has the ability to one day be an everyday NHL defenseman.
The numbers game all but certainly will prevent that from happening this season, but Clifton is showing that he can do more than hold his own in the top flight, and that’s not lost on his teammates nor — and arguably even more importantly — his head coach.
The 23-year-old blueliner out of Quinnipiac is in the midst of his second career call-up, both of which have been due to slews of injuries to Boston’s defense. But it appears he’s earned the trust of Bruce Cassidy to be more than just a stopgap.
“I like his game, I like that he competes,” Cassidy said. “Listen, it’s the Bruins identity, it’s our job to coach them up the rest of the way, they’ve got to bring the compete level. Obviously the execution — effort and execution, we always say, that falls on the player. … He wants to compete hard, so he’s willing to do that, he was the first call up, and we’ll find time for him to try and get the best matchups, but he’s got that (compete).”
Skating for the second straight game with Steven Kampfer on the third pairing, Clifton got a bump up to the second pairing with Brandon Carlo during the middle period. Clifton, a right shot, has played very little on the left, but in a pinch he was asked to do it, and it resulted in him and Carlo getting big assignments in a 2-1 overtime victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets, including skating against the Matt Duchene line.
So does getting elevated into that bigger role serve as a confidence booster?
“Yeah, yeah definitely,” Clifton said. “Obviously you want to play more ice time. I think I played 12 the other night, it was a little tougher to get into the game. But I thought tonight was a lot better.”
Indeed, Clifton saw a jump in his ice time, skating 16:51 Saturday night. Though it still was lowest of all Boston’s defensemen, it’s a sign that Cassidy is becoming increasingly comfortable calling Clifton’s number.
Zdeno Chara has been impressed with the ability of both Kampfer and Clifton to play with a nice jump despite limited NHL time lately.
“Both are very well-skating defensemen,” Chara said, “They have the ability to skate the puck and make plays, so definitely something we can use this time of the year. They’re fresh, they have a lot of energy to jump up the ice. … It’s not easy, but they’re playing well and doing a good job.”
Clifton burst onto the scene by fighting Jason Spezza in his NHL debut, but he seems to be trending in a direction where he won’t have to fight his way into an NHL lineup. The Providence Bruins shirt he wore when speaking to the media Saturday is an indirect reminder that his time in Boston likely won’t last the rest of the season, but he probably can find peace in knowing he’s making a good impression while skating for the varsity.
Here are some other notes from Saturday’s Blue Jackets-Bruins game:
— Patrice Bergeron’s first-period goal was his 800th career point.
It’s been a season of milestones for the veteran center, who also played in his 1000th career game earlier this season.
Of late, Bergeron is slashing 6-5-11 in his last 10 contests, while extending his home point streak to 16 (11-19-30).
— David Krejci has had a revolving door of linemates this season, and Saturday he skated with Charlie Coyle and Jake DeBrusk — the latter of whom returned after missing the last five games with a foot injury.
That incessant change makes the season Krejci’s having all the more impressive, as he updated his season statline to 19-44-63 with an assist against the Jackets. Over the last 16 games he’s tallied seven goals with 13 assists.
— Though their point streak was halted at 19 in Pittsburgh last weekend, the Bruins’ home point streak is alive and well. They’re on a 13-game home point streak and have won 11 straight at TD Garden.
— Saturday’s win gave the Bruins some much needed space in the standings, in part because the Toronto Maple Leafs got their doors blown off by the Ottawa Senators. Toronto sat two points back entering Saturday, but Boston’s advantage now is 95-91 with 10 games remaining for both teams.
Thumbnail photo via Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY Sports Images