Cale Makar raising the bar for Avalanche

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DENVER — Connor McDavid collected the puck inside in his own blue line and was off to the races.

Less than a minute into Game 2 of the Western Conference final, the only thing standing in the way of the Edmonton Oilers captain — and in the way of another potential jaw-dropping highlight from the lightning-quick superstar — was Cale Makar.

The Colorado Avalanche defenceman retreated backwards at a breathless pace before pivoting, angling McDavid away from danger and poking the puck off his stick.

Onlookers inside Ball Arena and millions more watching on television might have expected a different outcome.

Gary Makar wasn't one of them.

"Not surprised," Cale's father said in a phone interview Friday. "I know how he can accelerate.

"It was neat to see him rise to the challenge."

That's something Makar has done his whole life — always at his own pace.

"It's weird being his dad and going, 'Perfect,'" Gary Makar added of the McDavid sequence. "But in his mind this would have been awesome.

"That, to him, is opportunity. Great. Show me what you've got and vice versa. It's the game within the game."

Cale Makar has raised his own lofty standard in the 2022 playoffs with the Avalanche now just two wins from reaching their first Stanley Cup final in more than two decades.

The 23-year-old from Calgary leads a skilled, fast, driven team, that also includes the likes of Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, with 17 points in 12 games.

And he got here by choosing a road less travelled.

Makar decided against the top-tier Western Hockey League as an undersized teenager, instead suiting up in Alberta's provincial junior circuit before heading south to play in the NCAA at the University of Massachusetts Amherst after being selected fourth overall by Colorado at the 2017 NHL draft.

The Avalanche then wanted him to head west after his freshman season, but Makar didn't think he was ready.

Again, doing things at his own pace — fast or slow — depending on the situation.

"It was very logically done," explained Gary Makar, whose youngest son, Taylor, just finished his first season at UMass Amherst. "Where are we now? Where do we want to go? How are we going to get there?"

The longer development path for Cale, who now stands five foot 11 and weighs 187 pounds, was in the family's interest for a player keen to add muscle to a slight frame before jumping into the rigours of professional hockey.

"Our main focus was education," the elder Makar added. "And if you can use that from a hockey perspective ... wow, that's amazing."

What his oldest child has done since bursting onto the NHL scene in the 2019 playoffs, when he scored a goal early in the first period of his first game, is wow and amaze.

Makar won the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year in 2020, finished second in voting for the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenceman last season, and is one of three finalists for the award in 2022 following an 86-point performance in 77 games.

Those offensive numbers get a lot of the attention, and rightly so, but the play he made on McDavid early in Colorado's smothering 4-0 victory Thursday was indicative of what Makar brings to the table without the puck as the Avalanche stifled the Oilers' previously ferocious attack.

"Cale's focus on the defensive side is pretty darn good," said his dad. "It's a big personal goal of his to be really, really well-rounded.

"He loves going up against McDavid because the best want to play against the best."

The skating stride that's been honed over the years emerged as soon as Makar, who had three points in Colorado's wild 8-6 victory to open the West final, laced up his skates.

The way he thought the game, even back then, wasn't bad either.

"Could skate already like the wind," Gary Makar said. "And then he would start flipping the puck over players' heads at age five to go around them. (Other parents) are going, 'What? Did you teach him that?' No, I didn't. Can't take credit.

"We used a little statement since the boys were small, 'Look in the mirror, that's your competition.' Mom, dad, coaches aren't going to do it — it's you. And that's life."

Avalanche defenceman Devon Toews said skating alongside Makar is "as easy as can be" on Colorado's top pair.

"A dynamic player," Toews said. "The way he makes plays and creates time and space for myself and himself is just incredible."

Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar was asked prior to Game 2 what impresses him about Makar on a day-to-day basis.

The list was a long one.

"His professionalism, his maturity, how humble he is for an elite player, how committed he is," Bednar said. "You've all seen all the production on the ice, but just a quiet competitor, great teammate. Real humble guy.

"Love his character, love his personality."

Edmonton blue-liner Tyson Barrie was the Avalanche's main offensive threat on the back end when Makar burst onto the scene.

"I knew I was in trouble right when I got on the ice with him the first morning," Barrie, who was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the summer of 2019, said with a smile this week.

"I thought, 'I'm going to be out of here.' He was exceptional."

Makar has also learned how to take care of himself as a skilled, smaller target for opponents.

The Oilers took a couple of runs at him late in Game 2, but he came away unscathed.

"Being a small defenceman growing up served him well ... had to be elusive," Gary Makar said. "Just another tool in your toolbox. He relishes guys going out of their way to hit him.

"He'll just get the puck because the objective is to transition. If you want to waste your time trying to do that, go for it. People say, 'Oh, he's not that big.' But he can take care of himself.

"It's fun to watch."

Just like the matchup against McDavid, which is set to resume Saturday night in Edmonton with the Oilers in desperate need of a response.

"It's a measurement for yourself," Gary Makar said. "You can look in the mirror and then go, 'OK how'd I do?' If you're a high-level athlete, everybody wants that.

"That's what's satisfying — to go up against the best."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 3, 2022.

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Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter.

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had the incorrect year for Makar's Calder Trophy award.

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