So far, Bruins coach Jim Montgomery has played his cards right with Connor Clifton

So far, Bruins coach Jim Montgomery has played his cards right with Connor Clifton

“Kenny Rogers, that’s my new nickname for him, okay?” a smiling Montgomery said after Wednesday’s practice in Brighton, which still had Clifton with elite blueliner Hampus Lindholm on the No. 1 pairing and the Bruins still parked No. 1 in the NHL standings.

Rogers was best known for his song, “The Gambler.” NHL coaches rarely smile when they combine the concepts of defense and gambling, but Montgomery has seen enough of Clifton’s risky business so far to be confident the 27-year-old ex-Quinnipiac will play well their letters more often than not.

Montgomery, his calculated risks as a coach who pay rewards in the standings, sees Kenny as a guy who warms up at the table, and seems to have no intention of altering his game, his approach or his minutes (average 21:18). .

“He knows when to take ’em and when to fold ’em,” Montgomery said, stealing a line from Rogers’ trademark song. “Not all the time…and he doesn’t want to fold them very often.”

Of all the surprises this season, Clifton, previously known as a struggling third-down backliner with a penchant for risky freelance work, is perhaps the biggest of all. Under Montgomery’s tutelage, he has emerged, and continues to evolve, as an impressive and vital contributor on both sides of the puck. He is offensive minded and brings legitimate punch to his batting game.

“I mean, he called [Milan] Lucic off his skates,” mused Montgomery. “Nuf said, didn’t he?”

To dig deeper into the offense for a moment, both Clifton and the Lindholm polish are tracking career years. Heading into Thursday night’s game against the Flyers at the Garden, Lindholm and Clifton are on pace for 128 points.

The Bruins haven’t finished with two blue ribbons with that much production in nearly 30 years, dating back to Ray Bourque and Glen Wesley combining for 149 points in 1993-94. That’s when we made goals and assists, even from defenders, as common as cheap whiskey and cigars at the card table.

Lindholm and Clifton right now are Exhibits 1 and 1A when it comes to understanding the step forward that team president Cam Neely and general manager Don Sweeney hoped to see by hiring Montgomery for new messages behind the bench. In contrast to Bruce Cassidy, Montgomery has provided more players with more room to maneuver. Confidence is paying off.

Pavel Zacha, left, and Connor Clifton each scored in Sunday’s win over Vancouver.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Cassidy also liked Clifton and deserves credit for coaching the structure of his game and helping him start a big league career. Cassidy, however, was not so tolerant of the inherent risk and booing. A bad game, or even a bad play, could knock Clifton out of the lineup for the next game.

Now, Clifton said, “We can go behind the goal line and try to make a play, and it’s not the end of the world.”

It can be even more extreme than those flights of fancy. Case in point: One time earlier this season when Lindholm shot one from the point and Kenny was in the slot, trying for the tip.

“Yeah, funny thing,” Clifton recalled, laughing a little. “That doesn’t normally happen with two D partners.”

Flashback to Clifton’s first rookie camp, during the tournament game in Buffalo: Jay Leach, then head coach of AHL Providence, reflected after the game on “Cliffy Hockey,” which had Cliffy as the primary puck handler in a three-on-one breakout.

“Boy, Cliffy, I’m not sure,” said Leach, perplexed and perplexed. “Okay though. We’ll have to talk about it a bit.”

In the summer of ’21, Jeremy Lauzon and Clifton were exposed for Seattle’s expansion draft. The Kraken chose Lauzon, in part because he was a couple of years younger and had a slightly higher pedigree. Across the league, Lauzon was considered to have a bigger upside.

Connor Clifton is averaging 21:18 of ice time in 16 games with the Bruins this season.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Some 18 months later, Lauzon is clinging to third-pairing minutes in Nashville and the defenseman formerly known as Connor Clifton is doing very well with Lindholm, who is on pace for 87 points, a quantum leap from 34, career high. posted in Anaheim.

It should be noted that all of these numbers are the product of just 16 games, barely 20 percent of the schedule. There is no guarantee that past performance will lead to future success over the next 66.

But card players like Kenny, when they hear it, deal with the present and hope their luck works out. If you’re going to play the game, boy, you gotta learn how to play it well.

“I’ve always liked him as a player,” Montgomery noted. “He’s a hockey player. Because he goes out and tries to make things happen.

“I think Michael Jordan said some people can make things happen, some people wonder what’s going on and you want players who can make things happen. With him, I think we try to play an aggressive style of hockey, defensively and offensively , leans towards his personality.”

Montgomery especially appreciates what he calls Kenny’s “short memory.”

“It’s funny, yesterday is a perfect example,” the coach said. “I said to him, ‘Did you see your scoring opportunities?’ Now, their scoring chances are high, and their scoring chances are high, that [speaks to] he is kenny rogers. And he said, “Yeah, but, but, did you see how many chances I had?” As I say, short memory.

“It’s not a glass half full. it’s full To the edge.”

Among the reasons the Lindholm-Clifton pairing has worked so well, Montgomery said, is Kenny’s hockey sense.

“The most underrated part of his hockey game,” offered Montgomery. “He comes off the ice really well. Good hockey players know what they’re going to do with the puck before they get it. He does. That allows Lindholm to play aggressively both offensively and defensively. He knows his partner is reading the I play like him.”

It’s a long season, with many more hands to play. Wise players know this, never count your money when you are sitting at the table.

“The last two years, obviously you don’t if you can’t get away with it, do you?” Kenny said, thinking back to his days here playing Connor. “So obviously this is a different style. It’s been good for me, the team. It’s been great.”

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at [email protected].

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