Connor Clifton and the term Hitmen still go hand in hand.
The former New Jersey Hitmen standout led all Boston Bruins defensemen in hits in his NHL debut on Friday night, Nov. 16, with four. He also registered his first nine penalty minutes of his career in the 1-0 overtime loss to the Dallas Stars.
Five of those minutes came from a fight against the Stars' Jason Spezza.
Their respective NHL debuts were almost a generation apart (16 years), but that didn't stop Clifton from challenging the NHL veteran Jason Spezza to fisticuffs.
“When you dream it up I don’t expect to have nine penalty minutes in my first game,” Clifton told the New England Sports Network in a post-game interview. “Obviously emotions were high. I don’t really know what happened, ended up getting in a scrap.”
Clifton, born in 1995 in Long Branch, N.J., joined the Hitmen as a 14-year-old in 2009, playing for the Hitmen's team in the former Empire Junior Hockey League (the forerunner of today's USPHL Elite Division).
After parts of three seasons at that level, he joined the Hitmen's top team in the former EJHL (forerunner of today's NCDC), and scored 12 points in 28 games there as a 16-year-old.
USA Hockey came knocking that 2011-12 season and brought Clifton on board for parts of two seasons with the U.S. National Team Development Program. He won a Silver Medal at the 2013 Under-18 World Championships.
He was drafted that summer 133rd overall (fifth round) by the Arizona Coyotes, then going by the Phoenix Coyotes moniker.
In 2013, Clifton began a four-year career with Quinnipiac University that culminated in his captaincy of the Bobcats in 2016-17.
Always a physical presence, he graduated from Quinnipiac as the school's all-time penalty minutes leader with 284 in 156 games. But that was only one dimension of Clifton's all-around game in college.
He was an NCAA All-Tournament selection when Quinnipiac reached the Frozen Four in 2016, falling in the National Championship game to the University of North Dakota.
He also earned Tournament MVP and All-Tournament honors from ECAC Hockey when the Bobcats won the conference title that year.
Clifton tested free agency after his graduation from Quinnipiac and was signed by the Providence Bruins on Aug. 16, 2017. He played 54 games for Providence in the AHL last season, earning 13 points and his lowest penalty minutes total of his career in a full season (35).
He had played 14 games this season for Providence, registering four points and 15 penalty minutes before his call-up on Thursday.
He played a full 18:53 on ice for the Bruins, as he was joined on the ice by another NHL first-timer from Providence, Jakub Zboril.
"Overall, I mean, we wanted the win, but to get the first one out of the way, it was pretty good," said Clifton, to NESN and other reporters in a post-game media scrum. "I thought the first [period] was pretty shaky, but felt better after that."