The decision makes Clifford unavailable for Game 2 of the teams’ first-round playoff series on Wednesday. This is the first time in his 12-year NHL career that Clifford has been suspended.
The veteran wasn’t around long before being ejected from Monday’s Game 1, a 5-0 victory by the Leafs. During just his second shift of the first period, Clifford first put a legal hit on the Lightning’s Jan Rutta, and then he skated over to check the unsuspecting Colton from behind.
That sent Colton to the ice and Clifford out of the game with a five-minute major penalty and game misconduct.
In a video summary of why Clifford was suspended, the player safety department pointed out that the angle Clifford took on Colton made him “particularly defenseless” and still Clifford “finishes with force.”
“After Colton releases the puck, Clifford approaches from behind, and having seen nothing but Colton’s numbers for some time, delivers a forceful check to the defenseless Colton, driving him dangerously into the boards,” the video explains. “It is important to note this is not a case where a sudden or unexpected movement by Colton prior to contact changes a legal check into an illegal one. While we have heard an argument that Clifford does make some attempt to deliver this contact legally, this remains a forceful hit to a defenseless player who is no longer in possession of the puck.”
That Clifford was in Toronto’s lineup at all for Game 1 had been a heavily scrutinized choice. The Leafs acquired Clifford via trade with St. Louis in November, and he appeared in only 23 regular-season games while also doing a nine-game stint with the American Hockey League’s Marlies.
The veteran impressed Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe upon his return to the NHL, though. So much so, Keefe tapped Clifford over fellow fourth-liner Jason Spezza to round out the team’s fourth line with Colin Blackwell and Wayne Simmonds.
Despite how Clifford handled himself in Game 1, Keefe claimed to have no regrets about slotting him in.
“I didn’t like Cliff’s penalty. That’s not a hit you can make there,” Keefe said. “He stepped over the line today and paid for it. But the reason I made the decision was partially [because of] his physicality, but also how he skates and how he defends. Our fourth line has been the best when Kyle Clifford is in the lineup. It’s just that simple thing for me.”
It wasn’t entirely clear after Tuesday’s practice who will replace Clifford on the fourth line come Wednesday.
If Game 2 is anything like Game 1, both sides should be expecting another physical contest. Clifford is one of four participants from Monday’s tilt who faced supplemental discipline, the others stemming from a series of scrums that broke out in the third period.
Toronto’s Simmonds and Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon both received 10-minute misconducts in the game and were subsequently fined $2,500. The Lightning’s Corey Perry earned 16 penalty minutes on the night and a misconduct; he was also fined $2,500.