Connor Clifton joined Buffalo this season. ©2023, Micheline Veluvolu

After post-suspension slump, Sabres’ Connor Clifton playing aggressively, producing offense

BUFFALO – For weeks, the hit kept playing in the back of Connor Clifton’s head. The Sabres defensemen couldn’t let go of it.

“You’re going to make a hit, and then you’re like, ‘Oh, wait, I just got suspended for two games, right?’” Clifton said following Tuesday’s practice in KeyBank Center.

The affable Clifton, one of the NHL’s most aggressive hitters, had never been suspended before he thumped Devils captain Nico Hischier in the head Oct. 27 in New Jersey.

“I dealt with the consequences, sat out two games, and then for some reason I stopped playing the way I do, the way that makes me an effective player in this league,” he said after the Sabres prepared for tonight’s contest against the Colorado Avalanche, the start of a three-game road trip. “That’s playing hard, closing plays and (using) my legs and my body.”

When Clifton, 28, returned, he suddenly found himself playing tentatively. He had lost his assertiveness.

“When you mix that with my style of play, it’s just they don’t go together,” he said.

As an opportunity would materialize to hit an opponent, he might wonder if he should keep a little on the tank. That indecisiveness would cost him.

“Maybe you’re late and he jumps around you,” said Clifton, who signed a three-year, $9.9 million contract as a free agent July 1. “Next thing you know, you’re playing catch up.”

Clifton became frustrated as he played poorly and struggled to regain his regular form. He began losing ice time. In one game, he skated less than 10 minutes.

On Nov. 30, Sabres coach Don Granato scratched him.

The 5-foot-11, 192-pound Clifton searched for a solution. He knew he was in his own way. He had conversations with Granato, who also coached him in junior. Erik Johnson, his defense partner, suggested Clifton, a right-handed shot, move back to the right side.

Finally, Clifton, who has recently played on the right, said he tried to return to his “roots” by “playing hard, closing hard and being hard to play against.”

The New Jersey native found a groove again Thursday, his first game in Boston as a visitor after playing 232 games with the Bruins over five years, including a career-high 78 last season.

Being back in TD Garden brought Clifton confidence and he showcased his aggressive, in-your-face style while registering an assist in Buffalo’s 3-1 upset win.

It was perhaps his best performance with the Sabres.

“I think it helped, I’m not gonna lie,” he said of being back in Boston. “I played a lot of games in that building the only way I know how. I do think it helped a lot it from a comfortability standpoint. I felt good and I felt like me again.”

Clifton has been on a roll since then.

“Clifton really struggled coming off that suspension, just knowing him and having a history with him, and I think he’s finally settled back in and playing assertive and aggressive and not worried about thinking about every hit that he makes,” Granato said. “He’s just engaged and in the moment.”

In Saturday’s 3-2 home shootout loss to the Montreal Canadiens, Clifton stole the puck from Justin Barron to create captain Kyle Okposo’s goal. He also registered a career-high five blocked shots.

In Monday’s 5-2 home victory against the Arizona Coyotes, his stretch pass from the right circle in his own zone to the far blue line led to another Okposo score. He registered another assist later in the game.

“In the last three, he’s just been phenomenal,” Okposo said. “He’s just been all over the ice, making plays, playing a really structured game. He’s just been a rock back there for us.”

Clearly, Clifton possesses some underrated playmaking ability. He said in his first four seasons, he was simply battling to stay in the lineup. Offense wasn’t a concern for him.

Then last season, when coach Jim Montgomery took over the Bruins, Clifton said he expected every player to contribute offense.

“I started actually making plays and getting points,” he said.

Clifton finished with five goals and 23 points, both career highs.

“Offensive production, that’s not how I value my game,” he said. “I love scoring goals and being part of goals. It’s why we all play, but I don’t need a point to have really good game.”

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