Cale Makar adds to his growing legend, lifting the Avalanche to a Game 2 win

Sometimes in playoff hockey, a team simply outplays another and wins. Sometimes games change on the whims of a rubber disk, and sometimes games change on the whims of a third-string goalie having the night of his life. Other times, like Thursday night, a generational player finds a way to lift his team when the lights get brightest.

Cale Makar is mild-mannered. Kind but reserved. He read six books a semester his sophomore year at UMass, researching leadership and self-understanding in independent study classes. He’s not flashy – at least not until he’s on the ice. But when he plays hockey, he’s explosive: a force earning praise from the game’s giants, whether it’s Nicklas Lidstrom or Paul Coffey or Ray Bourque. Even Wayne Gretzky – The Great One – couldn’t help but rave about Makar’s skating during the national broadcast of Game 2 of the Avalanche-Predators first-round series.

The compliments come for good reason. The 23-year-old added a page to the growing legend of his young career Thursday, leading the team to a 2-1 overtime victory against the Predators.

“Most of the time, the hockey gods are going to reward you for that hard work,” Makar said of his team’s resolve as it seized a 2-0 series lead. “We were able to get a lucky one overtime.”

The game saw David turn into a Goliath for Nashville as third-string Predators goalie Connor Ingram became the unlikeliest of near-heroes. Appearing in only his fifth NHL game, he slid across his crease with ease and refused to overplay shots, stymying the Avalanche players no matter what they threw at him. By night’s end, he saved 49 shots.

Thanks to Makar, he couldn’t make a 50th. After a Nico Sturm shot deflected off Predators captain Roman Josi, Makar seized the puck and fired it on the net. Logan O’Connor – a healthy scratch in Game 1 – jumped to let the puck fly toward the net and blocked Ingram’s vision in the process. Makar’s shot snuck through his legs.

“I think that was the first one all game that I didn’t get eyes on before it got to me,” Ingram said.

“We get a lucky bounce,” Makar added. “I just tried to throw it at the net. Then it was craziness. ”

He lifted both arms in the air after the puck crossed the line, and Sturm immediately wrapped him in a bear hug, raising a celebratory fist. Josi slammed his fists on his knees in frustration, and Ingram turned around to look into the net. When he saw the puck nestled past the goal line, he lowered his head, defeated.

Back in Makar’s hometown of Calgary, his dad, Gary, let out an adrenaline-fueled yell. He later joked that people in Denver probably heard him. He’d tried to do his part from afar, going through various superstitions in attempts to break Ingram’s spell.

“I was wearing my Avs jersey inside out, my Avs hat and Avs T-shirt backwards,” he said via text.

The goal was a fitting ending to an all-time showing. Makar had 12 shots on the night, a franchise record for a playoff game, and he had another 10 shot attempts blocked. Colorado had 42 shot attempts at five-on-five while he was on the ice, per Natural Stat Trick, while Nashville had only 15. And he played sound defense throughout the night, helping Colorado kill off a five-on-three Nashville power play.

“I thought he was outstanding,” coach Jared Bednar said. “I don’t know what else to say.”

From the beginning of the season, Bednar and his players haven’t shied away from saying they believe they have a team capable of winning the Stanley Cup. If they’re going to reach that peak, Game 2 is the type of game they’ll need to continue to win: one in which players created their own luck and worked for their own breaks.

“Our message was, ‘Keep doing what we’re doing,'” Bednar said. “You’ve got to believe that if you keep playing like that and keep doing the right thing and your checking game is in order that you’re going to find the way from sheer numbers.”

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado’s superstar center, made sure the team got off to a good start. Five minutes into the contest, Erik Johnson chipped a puck out of the defensive zone, and MacKinnon read the play perfectly, seizing possession in stride and galloping up ice. As he neared the net, he lasered a shot to Connor Ingram’s right, beating him blocker side to give Colorado a 1-0 lead on the team’s first shot of the game. “Let’s fucking go,” he said to Bowen Byram as the defenseman skated toward him to celebrate.

Over the past three seasons, MacKinnon has played in 27 postseason contests and has 20 goals and 24 assists. He’s averaging 1.4 points per game in his playoff career, which is third all-time among players who have appeared in more than 40 postseason games. Only Gretzky (1.84) and Mario Lemieux (1.61) are ahead of him.

“He lives to compete,” Makar said. “He’s definitely a different animal in the playoffs. That’s why he’s probably the best player in the world. ”

But the Predators showed that, unlike in Game 1’s 7-2 Colorado victory, an early goal wouldn’t lead to a blowout. With just under five minutes left in the first, Josi threw a puck up ice. Samuel Girard crouched in an attempt to stop the puck, but it landed right in front of him and skipped through his legs. His instincts were right, but the result proved costly. Yakov Treinen grabbed possession and flung the puck past Darcy Kuemper, who was playing on his 32nd birthday.

The ice tilted in Colorado’s way starting in the second, but the Avalanche couldn’t capitalize on three power plays. After getting outshot in the first period, Bednar’s club led 43-15 in shots the rest of the game.

“Our forecheck wasn’t as effective as it was in Game 1 (in) the first period, and we wanted to make sure we were getting up and turning pucks over and spending some time in the offensive zone,” the coach said. “As the game went on, we got better and better at getting to the net and trying to get in his eyes. I liked what I saw on the offensive side of it. ”

At the end of the second period, Valeri Nichushkin seemingly scored a goal, but the referee ruled Artturi Lehkonen interfered with Ingram. Bednar challenged, believing Predators defenseman Dante Fabbro pushed his forward into the goaltender. But the officials confirmed the call, ruling Lehkonen had “a significant presence in the crease and made incidental contact” with Ingram, according to a statement. They handed Colorado a bench minor penalty for game delay, so Nashville started the second period on the power play.

Colorado’s bad situation quickly got worse, as Nichushkin took a high-sticking penalty almost immediately to start the third period. The Predators all of a sudden had nearly two minutes of five-on-three power-play time. But the Avalanche responded. Darren Helm, Josh Manson and Erik Johnson played the first minute of the kill, frustrating the Predators and clearing the puck. JT Compher, Devon Toews and Makar took the ice next, and though Filip Forsberg hit the iron with a shot, the most dangerous chance of Nashville’s five-on-three came from Makar. He seized the puck and darted up ice for a partial breakaway. Ingram snared his shot, but Colorado snared momentum.

“They got a few good opportunities, but we were able to weather it,” Makar said. “There’s not much else to say: We just wanted to gain momentum.”

But Ingram made it tough. He halted good Colorado chances on a power play late in the third, and he stood firm the first eight minutes of overtime. All Colorado could do was push and push, and finally Makar broke through. It wasn’t his prettiest shot of the night, but it was his most important.

“He does things as a defenseman that offensively a lot of other players can’t do,” Predators coach John Hynes said. “Because of his quickness, movement and lateral ability, he finds a way to get a lot of shots through. He’s an excellent player, that’s for sure. ”

Moments of celebration continued after the players left the ice. Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic rode down the elevator with a smile on his face. Devon Toews signed a jersey for Sawyer MacFarland, son of assistant general manager Chris MacFarland, and players’ wives and girlfriends cheered whenever one of their partners entered the family room. Kuemper, having made 25 saves on the night, left grinning with his wife.

“We’re going to enjoy it and be happy that we got rewarded for all the work we put in tonight, but we know the toughest game is always the next one,” the goalie said. “We’ve got to get ready for that one.”

Heading into the playoffs, MacKinnon stressed the importance of the Avalanche’s depth, stopping to add one caveat: The team’s top players will, in his words, have to “drive the bus” if Colorado is going to make a deep run.

That sentiment rang true Thursday, and it was Makar’s turn to grab the wheel.

(Photo: Andy Cross / MediaNews Group / The Denver Post via Getty Images)


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