Jake Clifford’s birthday was one to remember.
On Saturday, the Arizona State senior forward was a game-winning goal recipient for the Sun Devils, as he netted a rebound in overtime to lift ASU in a 3-2, sudden-death victory.
The win moved the team to 12-6 on the season, and the two-game sweep of Princeton catapulted the team four spots from No. 19 to No. 15 in the USCHO rankings on Monday.
However, even more special than the win and the ranking was Clifford’s birthday on Saturday night, as he celebrated the occasion on the same day as head coach Greg Powers.
The win held a little extra significance for the player and coach. It was a small memento serving to illustrate how far the program has come.
Clifford, who has spent the last three seasons with Powers, has lived through the growing pains of jumpstarting an NCAA Division I hockey program.
Originally a defenseman in his first two seasons, Clifford didn’t have too much ice time during his first two years in Tempe. He transitioned to being a full-time forward last season and has found a home on the fourth line.
“He’s the epitome of what we want our guys to be about,” Powers said. “He came in a hybrid year (2015-16 season), and in the first full year (at the NCAA level), he didn’t play a lot at all. He just continued to stick with it.
“He continued to buy into what we were doing. He got better and better off the ice from a conditioning standpoint, from an academic standpoint, from a culture standpoint, to the point where, I had to find a spot for him and play him up front. I don’t think he has been out since, so I am really proud of him and his progress.”
That progress came full circle in Saturday night’s win, as Clifford was mobbed by white sweaters after his game-winner, leaving the veteran Sun Devil a little left in awe.
“It’s crazy that actually happened. I was very fortunate to get the OT winner and just put home that rebound,” Clifford said. “I was just kind of speechless. It was kind of surreal.”
The last two years in the NCAA, ASU has only tallied 18 total wins. This year, the team has already won 12 games alone. The road to becoming nationally ranked has not happened overnight. It has come with its fair share of beatings and bruises as a young hockey school. Clifford has been a part of it all.
However, he has not been alone as a slew of returning Sun Devils have helped a young core of players this season. Among those returners are Clifford’s linemates: sophomore Dom Garcia and junior Steen Pasichnuk. The trio is often the group that makes up the ASU fourth line, even dating back to last season.
Together, the group isn’t afraid to lay the body. Clifford, Pasichnuk and Garcia are all known for their physical play, and when they step on the ice, their presences are often felt through their ability to lay the lumber.
“I think we all just know our roles,” Garcia said. “We like to play the same way. We like to hit. We like to be around the other team’s net causing as much havoc as we can. We know our plays aren’t going to be the prettiest like the top lines, but I think that helps bring us together. I think we are all pretty close.”
Redshirt senior forward Louie Rowe has also been slotted into the fourth line at times this season. Against Princeton, Rowe played in both games alongside Clifford and Garcia.
Pasichnuk and Clifford are roommates, and the group of players all spend a large chunk of time together away from the rink. It has helped their play.
And while they might not be the snipers or puck-handlers compared to the likes of sophomore forward Johnny Walker or freshman forward Demetrios Koumontzis, the line gives ASU an edge in creating a diverse lineup.
“I think that’s the beautiful thing about our team. We are pretty dynamic,” Clifford said. “We have a solidified top-six and our line, we understand that we need to bring some energy every now and then. If that means bringing physicality into it, we are more than happy to do that. It’s fun.”
Clifford is originally from Ohio, although he has lived in seven different states, and two Canadian provinces when he played in the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL). His father was a painter who often traveled, creating some diverse life experiences.
“I traveled a lot for my dad’s job. It was great. I got to see a lot of different places and meet a lot of great people,” Clifford said. “It’s just part of who I am and I have kind of learned to adapt, and that’s why I have had no problem shipping out to the desert and playing hockey.”
Clifford has endured a lot during his time with ASU’s program. From not playing, changing positions, and enduring losing seasons, to becoming a key component of a ranked team, the forward will look to close out his final year in memorable fashion.
But regardless of what happens, Saturday’s goal at Princeton will likely extend past this season.
“I think that is probably one of my favorite hockey moments so far in my life,” Clifford said. “...I am definitely going to remember that forever. It’s just so cool because it’s my last year playing and you just want everything to work out for the best...It’s still surreal.”