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

Sometimes in playoff hockey one team simply outplays another and wins. Sometimes games change on the whims of a rubber puck, and sometimes games change on the whims of a third-row goalkeeper having the night of his life. At other times, like Thursday night, a generation player will find a way to lift their team when the lights are at their brightest.

Cale Makar is gentle. Friendly but reserved. In his sophomore year at UMass, he read six books per semester and explored leadership and self-understanding in independent study classes. He’s not flashy – at least not until he’s on the ice. But when he’s playing hockey, he’s explosive: a force praised by the game’s giants, whether Nicklas Lidstrom, 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 with good reason. The 23-year-old added a page to the growing legend of his young career on Thursday, leading the team to a 2-1 overtime win over the Predators.

“Most of the time, the hockey gods will reward you for that hard work,” Makar said of his team’s determination as they went 2-0 up in a row. “We were able to get a lucky one in extra time.”

In that game, a David turned Goliath for Nashville as third-rate Predators goalie Connor Ingram became the most unlikely near-hero. Playing in only his fifth NHL game, he effortlessly slid over his crease and refused to overplay shots, handicapping the Avalanche players no matter what they threw at him. At the end of the night he held 49 shots.

Thanks to Makar, he couldn’t make a 50th. After a shot from Nico Sturm was deflected by Predators captain Roman Josi, Makar grabbed the puck and shot it into the net. Logan O’Connor – a healthy scratch in Game 1 – jumped to send the puck flying toward the net, blocking Ingram’s view in the process. Makar’s shot went through his legs.

“I think that was the first game I didn’t see before it got to me,” Ingram said.

“We get a lucky shot,” added Makar. “I just tried to throw it in the net. Then it was madness.”

He raised both arms in the air after the puck crossed the line, and Sturm immediately pulled him into a bear hug and raised a celebratory fist. Josi banged his fists on his knees in frustration and Ingram turned to look at the net. He bowed his head in defeat when he saw the puck lying behind the goal line.

Back in Makar’s hometown of Calgary, his father, Gary, let out an adrenaline-pumping scream. He later joked that people in Denver probably would have heard him. He had attempted to do his part remotely, undergoing various superstitions in order to break Ingram’s spell.

“I wore my Avs jersey backwards, my Avs cap and Avs t-shirt backwards,” he said via text message.

The goal was a fitting conclusion to an all-time show. Makar had 12 shots that night, a franchise record for a playoff game, and he had another 10 shot attempts blocked. Colorado had 42 shot attempts at five-for-five while on the ice, via natural stat trick, while Nashville only had 15. And he played solid defense all night, helping Colorado kill a five-for-three Nashville power play.

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

Since the start of the season, Bednar and his players have not been shy about saying they believe they have a team capable of winning the Stanley Cup. If they want to reach that pinnacle, Game 2 is the kind of game they need to keep winning: one where players create their own luck and work for their own breaks.

“Our message was, ‘Keep doing what we’re doing,'” Bednar said. “You have to believe that if you keep playing like this and keep doing what’s right, and your control game is designed to find your way by sheer numbers.”

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado’s superstar center, got the team off to a good start. Five minutes into the game, Erik Johnson chipped a puck out of the defending zone and MacKinnon read the play perfectly, capturing the ball at a walk and cantering on ice. As he neared the net, he lasered a shot to the right of Connor Ingram, beating him on the blocker side to give Colorado a 1-0 lead on the first shot of the game. “Let’s the fuck go,” he told Bowen Byram as the defender ran towards him to cheer.

Over the past three seasons, MacKinnon has appeared in 27 postseason competitions and has recorded 20 goals and 24 assists. He has averaged 1.4 points per game in his playoff career, which is third all-time among players to 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 the 7-2 win in Game 1 in Colorado, an early goal wouldn’t result in a blowout. With almost five minutes to go, Josi threw a puck into the ice in the first lap. Samuel Girard ducked to stop the puck, but it landed right in front of him and bounced through his legs. His instinct was right, but the result proved costly. Yakov Treinen grabbed the ball and slung the puck past Darcy Kuemper, who was playing on his 32nd birthday.

The ice tilted in Colorado’s path from the second, but the Avalanche couldn’t capitalize on three power plays. After scoring an outside shot in the first half, Bednar’s club led 43-15 in shots for the rest of the game.

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

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

Colorado’s poor situation quickly worsened when Nichushkin executed a high-stick penalty almost immediately early in the third period. The Predators suddenly 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 although Filip Forsberg hit the iron with a shot, the most dangerous chance in Nashville’s five-a-side came from Makar. He grabbed the puck and shot ice for a partial breakout. Ingram slowed his shot, but Colorado slowed the momentum.

“They had a couple of good chances, but we managed to take them,” Makar said. “There’s nothing more to say: We just wanted to get moving.”

But Ingram made it difficult. He stopped good Colorado chances on a power play late in the third and stayed steadfast for the first eight minutes of overtime. All Colorado could do was push and push, and eventually Makar broke through. It wasn’t his prettiest shot of the evening, but it was his most important.

“He does things as a defender that a lot of other players can’t do offensively,” said Predators coach John Hynes. “Because of his speed, movement and lateral ability, he finds a way to put through a lot of shots. 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 the players’ wives and girlfriends cheered when one of their partners entered the family room. Kuemper, who had made 25 saves that night, left grinning with his wife.

“We will enjoy it and be happy that we were rewarded for all the work we put in tonight, but we know that the toughest game is always the next one,” said the goalkeeper. “We have to prepare for that.”

Heading into the playoffs, MacKinnon stressed the importance of depth in the Avalanche, pausing to add a caveat: The team’s best players have to, in his words, “drive the bus” if Colorado wants to make a deep run.

That feeling proved true on Thursday and it was Makar’s turn to take the wheel.

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

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