Connor Clifton has registered eight assists in the last month. ©2024, Micheline Veluvolu

After slow start, Connor Clifton quietly generating offense for Sabres

PITTSBURGH – Pop quiz, Buffalo Sabres fans. Since Dec. 7, which player is tied with winger Alex Tuch for the team lead with eight assists?

Is it one of the Sabres’ top centers, Tage Thompson, Dylan Cozens or Casey Mittelstadt? Or how about one of their high-scoring wingers, JJ Peterka or Jeff Skinner? What about their defenseman who piles up points like a first-line forward, Rasmus Dahlin?

If you guessed any of the above, you’re wrong.

Believe it or not, third-pair defenseman Connor Clifton has registered eight assists in the last 13 games entering tonight’s contest against the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena.

Update: Clifton registered the primary assist on Tuch’s first-period goal in Saturday’s 3-1 win, giving him a team-high nine assists since Dec. 7.

Clifton, 28, recorded just two assists in his first 22 outings this season. Two years ago with the Boston Bruins, he compiled eight assists in 60 games the entire season.

What the heck has happened during the last month? After a slow start, Clifton, who’s known for his physical play, has grown comfortable and found his confidence after signing a three-year, $9.9 million contract in free agency.

“I hated my first 25 games, right, and for whatever reason, I finally found my game,” said Clifton, who struggled after receiving a two-game suspension in October for an illegal check to New Jersey Devils captain Nico Hischier’s head. “It’s really not about the points, it’s about doing the right things. And when you’re doing that, we’re scoring more from it.”

Clifton’s assist on winger Jack Quinn’s goal in Thursday’s 6-1 road win over the Montreal Canadiens illustrates that point. He earned the secondary helper simply by moving the puck up to Quinn from the right corner as one of the Canadiens zeroed in on him. He was willing to absorb a hit to make a play.

“It’s working for the puck and getting body positioning and just getting it to him,” Clifton said this morning of the play. “Obviously, great support by Quinner. If you watch the play, too, he’s working his tail off to get to the wall to get open. …

“I’m not trying to get an assist there, I’m just trying to get the puck up into our forwards’ hands and let them make some plays.”

Sabres coach Don Granato traced Clifton’s offensive surge to his aggressive play – “He’s engaged more than your typical defender,” he said – that forces opponents into mistakes.

“And, obviously, taking initiative with the puck, moving his feet with the puck,” he said. “Not only killing a play, but being aggressive the first two, three seconds after a kill play.”

Clifton, who hasn’t scored a goal this season, compiled career-high offensive totals – five goals, 18 assists and 23 points – across the board last year.

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