TAMPA — Nine minutes after he finished the handshake line, after all the scoreboard’s digits showed zero and the celebration had begun, Cale Makar tilted his head down and skated away from the cluster of Avalanche players. They had just defeated the Lightning 2-1 to claim the Stanley Cup. Makar had already pulled the gray and white championship hat over his head.
It captured everything the Avalanche had built toward the last three years — the heartbreak of early playoff exits, and now the triumph of winning it all. And at the center was Makar, their first-round draft pick in 2017, who glided away from his teammates at the blue line and toward the Conn Smythe Trophy.
“It’s surreal,” Makar said.
Makar’s third regular season in the NHL had already featured 28 goals and 58 assists. It already contained the Norris Trophy, awarded annually to the league’s top defenseman. But then Makar won the award given to the MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs after posting 29 points (eight goals, 21 assists) in 20 playoff games, including points in four of the six games against the Lightning. He is the third defenseman — joining Bobby Orr and Nicklas Lidstrom — to win both the Norris and the Conn Smythe in the same season.
“It’s so funny seeing us grow up together, have those sibling fights, battles, playing for fake Stanley Cups and mini sticks,” said Taylor Makar, his younger brother and a 2021 Avalanche draft pick. “And to see him finally be able to lift that, I know he’s always wanted that (and) something I’ve wanted to be able to watch, too.”
Makar’s trajectory to this point started when the Avalanche signed him to a three-year, entry-level contract following two seasons at UMass. He instantly became a constant on their defensive pairings by appearing in 101 games his first two seasons before breaking out this year. He recorded multiple goals in a game four times during the regular season before recording two in Game 2 against the Lightning.
Makar and his family posed for photos in the corner with the Stanley Cup. Gary, his father, said that they dreamed about this growing up in Canada — when they played mini sticks in the house, when they wrapped juice containers and other items in tinfoil to replicate a scaled-down version of their wildest dream.
And on Sunday, that materialized as their reality. Makar grinned and pumped the Cup when he gripped it for the first time after the Conn Smythe ceremony. Then, as the celebration continued, Gary hoisted the Cup above his head before handing it back to his son.
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“You’re always visualizing,” Gary said. “Do you think it’s ever gonna happen? No. When it does? Oh my goodness.”
Makar didn’t have his best performance early in Game 6, though. He was called for an interference penalty just 23 seconds into the first period, and three minutes later, Nikita Kucherov poked the puck away deep in the Avalanche’s zone — causing Makar to lose control of the puck and seconds later leading to the Lightning’s first goal.
But he anchored a defense that held the Lightning without a shot for the first seven minutes of the third period and allowed just four across the entire frame. He threw his gloves and stick in the air once the final seconds ticked off, celebrated with teammates, then embraced Logan O’Connor as the pair slid across the ice in a long embrace.
During an ESPN interview postgame, when asked how other teams might try to copy the Avalanche going forward, Gabriel Landeskog said that teams should “find a Cale Makar somewhere.” Andrew Cogliano, who said that the Avalanche are lucky to have players like Makar, agreed, but only after he added his own caveat.
“You can’t find guys like him.”
Times staff writer Greg McKenna contributed to this report.
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