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It was the one element of Cale Makar’s game that he had returned to UMass to work on; the one-time shot.
ESPN’s big-boy broadcasters had teased him about it during their NCAA coverage, until the man-child destroyed Harvard with a one-time blast from his power-play office at the Northeast Regional. Possessor of the coveted right-hand shot, Makar likes to set up on the left side of the umbrella on the power-play, near the top of the circle, take a pass and let it fly across his body. Because of a full college season and four weeks of Stanley Cup playoffs, Makar has had nearly nine-months to work the kinks out of what had supposedly been the only kink in his game. His one-timer is now a feared weapon at the highest level.
Time was running out on Makar’s endless season Wednesday night, an NCAA-to-NHL transition not seen in over half a century. Despite being the ultimate NHL newbie, a 20-year-old kid still wet behind his ears, Makar was back in his office, his Avalanche trailing by a goal in Game 7 on the road, half a minute from playoff extinction. And with storybook timing, Makar got the pass he had been prepping for all season long, and got a hold of it like golfer driving from the blue tees. The puck changed direction and exited his blade at an estimated 100 miles per hour, screaming in hot toward the Sharks goalie Martin Jones, who was sliding across his crease.
The puck was only a blur, even on NBC’s super slo-mo. It rattled off Jones’ blocker, and carried through into his jersey next to his hip, the puck’s momentum carrying inches deeper toward the goal line. But Jones’ elbow clamped down, closing what is known as the “seven-hole,” and the scoring bid fell a foot short.
The Avalanche had one more glorious chance, a tip-in gobbled up once again by Jones, and Colorado’s Cinderella story, and Makar’s, finally expired a few minutes before midnight eastern time. Cheeks puffed and red, Makar went through his second Stanley Cup playoff handshake line, his first on the losing side.
His hockey Odyssey has been well documented, but dizzying nevertheless: 48 hours after falling short in the NCAA title game, 72 hours since he won the prestigious Hobey Baker Award, Makar scored his first NHL playoff goal, helping the Avalanche to a shocking series victory over the heavily favored Flames. The team he worshipped growing up in Calgary was left in his wake, as Cale and his new mates advanced to the Western Conference semis.
Hockey aficionados have come up with a handful of examples of players who made the jump from the Frozen Four to the Stanley Cup playoffs. In 1990, John Byce went from scoring a hat trick in Wisconsin’s NCAA title game triumph to scoring for the Bruins in their first round victory over Hartford, but Byce was injured during Boston’s run to the Finals, and never heard from again.
Perhaps the best parallel to Makar’s 48-hour sprint to The Show was back in 1962, when Red Berenson left his Michigan Wolverines in Utica, driving from the Frozen Four to Boston to join the first place Montreal Canadiens on St. Patrick’s Day. Although the Habs were upset by the Blackhawks in the 1962 semifinals, Berenson would continue his legendary pro career, winning a Stanley Cup with Montreal and getting to three more Finals with the St. Louis Blues. One imagines that Makar’s career will more likely follow the Berenson track than that of Byce.
It is feasible that Makar could answer the Clarion Call of Team Canada, and join the men in Slovakia in quest of IIHF gold. That would be unprecedented. But, according to his father Gary, Cale and his family will be in St. Paul, Minnesota on May 22 for the annual Hobey Baker Banquet, where the men in the distinct Hobey Baker Blazers will pay homage to this college hockey immortal.
To those of us who have had the privilege of covering Makar’s amazing season, a tip of the hat and tap of the stick. It may take another half century before we see another.