Magic Makar: Avalanche defenseman turns in dominant series
DENVER (AP) — There’s one area Cale Makar still has plenty of room for growth — his playoff beard.
Even with a little bit of a head start, the Colorado Avalanche defenseman’s rosy cheeks still shine through.
“It’s like three weeks, right?” teased teammate Devon Toews before the Avalanche swept the Nashville Predators in a first-round playoff series dominated by Makar.
“Yeah, this is probably a couple of weeks already,” Makar said with a laugh. “Hopefully we get to have a better look at (a beard) this year, what I can actually do if it’s a couple months.”
No bristling at this: His game is razor sharp.
Makar turned in one of the best regular seasons ever by a Colorado defensemen. It was quite a feat given the Avalanche’s blueline tradition, which includes Adam Foote, Rob Blake, Ray Bourque and Sandis Ozolinsh, but Makar is clearly something special.
After helping the Avalanche put away the Predators with a three-goal, seven-assist series, his 10 points are the most in league history by a defenseman through four games in any playoff year, according to NHL Stats.
“He might be the best player in the league right now,” Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon said. “He might be one of the best ‘D’ to ever play by the end of his career at this rate.”
The 23-year-old from Calgary is averaging 1.05 goals per game over 39 career playoff appearances, which at the moment puts him second all-time among NHL defensemen, trailing only Bobby Orr (1.24 over 74 postseason games).
“He hasn’t let up,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said of Makar, the fourth overall pick by the Avalanche in the 2017 draft. “He keeps getting better and better.”
Makar’s 28 goals broke Ozolinsh’s single-season franchise record by a defenseman. On the night he eclipsed Ozolinsh’s mark, teammate Mikko Rantanen had to inform him of the milestone.
“I sound like a broken record, but those goals go back to the team,” Makar said, insisting that individual records are “not really something I focus on.”
Same with winning the Norris Trophy, which goes to the league’s top defenseman. He’s among the finalists along with Victor Hedman of Tampa Bay and Nashville’s Roman Josi.
Josi’s 96-point season was the best by an NHL defenseman in 29 years, but the Avalanche held him to one goal and one assist in sweeping a first-round series for a second straight postseason.
Count Makar a big fan of Josi, with the two spending some time chatting at the All-Star Game and briefly again in the handshake line Monday night.
“He’s an unbelievable player,” said Makar, the 2019-20 Calder Trophy winner as rookie of the year. “He pushed me a lot this season. He had one incredible year.”
The respect is mutual.
“He’s such a fun player to watch,” said Josi, who captured the Norris the same season Makar took home the Calder. “He’s so dynamic. … I love watching him play.”
Except for maybe this: Makar setting up the winning goal Monday by avoiding a check and sending a pass across the ice to an open Valeri Nichushkin. It capped the three-point night for Makar, whose sweet performance included fans throwing Skittles at him in the closing moments.
“It is what it is,” Makar said. “It’s fine.”
On the docket, rest and perhaps viewing some of the playoff action, including the Minnesota-St. Louis series, whose winner will face Colorado. The Avalanche have been eliminated in the second round in each of the last three postseasons.
The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Makar believes the Avs have the personnel for a long run. He has developed a nice rapport with fellow blueliner Toews.
“We just read off each other,” said Toews, who ranked first among all NHL defensemen with a plus-52 rating in the regular season. “We both want to play quick. Defensively, I think that’s the kind of side of things that doesn’t get looked at as much. I think offensively we create a lot and a lot of times we’re playing with Nate’s line and it gets easy to create offense.
“If you look back at the other end of the rink, we’re getting out of our zone really quick. We’re closing fast and using our speed and our IQ to break pucks up and break plays up and that allows us to play more offense.”
There’s this, too: Makar emerging as a vocal leader.
“He’s taken another step with his leadership in the room,” MacKinnon said. “On the ice, he’s so dominant. … We’re really excited to have him on our team, obviously.”
More AP NHL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
By PAT GRAHAM
AP Sports Writer