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Boulding: Do Avalanche Have the IT Factor To Get Them Over the Top?



It seems as if most NHL teams require the IT factor, an intangible thing that helps them graduate from goodness to greatness, to elevate their status from mere contender to supreme champion.

Sometimes this thing comes in the form of players, guys with skills that compliment or enhance the current roster. Other times it’s off-ice inspiration that works, the human-interest objective that creates the perfect magic required to push a team over that final hurdle.

For the 2000-01 Colorado Avalanche, it was the combination of absolute talent and the Mission  16W to get Ray Bourque Lord Stanley’s Cup before he retired that proved to be what the club needed.

For the 2021-22 University of Denver Pioneers, a good team was perhaps made better after meeting former player and Minnesota state senator David Tomassoni during the NCHC Frozen Faceoff. Tomassoni, who is battling ALS, told the team, “When you play in the national championship game, win the f—ing thing.” So they did.

New Jersey Devils head coach Lindy Ruff was asked about that mystical thing a team needs to achieve the pinnacle of play is prior to facing the Avalanche on Thursday, the imperceptible item to help Colorado get through the second round of the postseason and beyond to the glory that awaits.

“Oh boy. That’s one of the toughest questions I’m gonna get, because that intangible is what everybody is looking for, that one thing that pushes you over the edge. I feel like there’s something a team always gets, like whether it’s a playoff series or run to the cup,” Ruff mused. 

“It might be a third-line player that plays extremely well. It might be a goalie that catches on fire, or one or two defensemen that just become rock solid for you. It’s something that really you don’t know if it’s coming, but when it comes it helps you get by it. Whether you’re struggling maybe a little bit offensively or struggling a little defensively. There’s one thing usually that a team starts to really catch on fire with and it usually pushes them through.”

This season’s iteration of your favorite Avs squad is hoping that unquantifiable change, that unknown substance, is the recent additions of veteran Andrew Cogliano, defenseman Josh Manson, and hard workers Nico Sturm and Artturi Lehkonen. 

While it may have taken a little time for them to be fully integrated into the schemes and machinations of the Avalanche juggernaut, they’re certainly producing now. Lehkonen has four points (one goal, three assists) over his past two games, and has been getting a lot of credit for what he—and linemate Valeri Nichushkin—brings to the table both at even strength and on the power play.

“They’re probably the best forecheckers on our team to start with, and then on the power play they get everything loose and make really good passes from there, too,” Nathan MacKinnon said recently. “They don’t just throw it away or anything. Two awesome players, and filling in for [Nazem Kadri] and [Gabe Landeskog] isn’t easy, but those guys are doing a good job.”

And Manson, who is both insightful and perhaps under appreciated by the untrained eye, has finally found his spot on what may be the strongest Colorado blue line in two decades, if not ever.

“I thought Manson was outstanding again tonight. That’s two games in a row where he’s been lights out,” Avs bench boss Jared Bednar said following Thursday’s win over the Devils. “He’s making breakout plays, slipping pucks into the middle, forehand backhand solid. When he arrives down there, he stays in the back. He’s got no fear when he goes back for pucks. He’ll wait and accept checks and still slip pucks into the right areas. He’s managing it real well. Making plays in the neutral zone.”

“He sprung [Alex Newhook] yesterday or the other day for breakaway. Today, he does it again. He’s moving the puck real well. It looks like he’s starting to get way more comfortable.”

But while this all seems—particularly with a healthy Kadri and Landeskog, and sure we can say Ryan Murray, too—like the mojo that can boost a team over the hurdle at the end of the race, I can’t help but wonder if what Colorado needs has been here this whole time.

Maybe it’s the monster that was hiding under the bed of every NHL squad not donning the burgundy and blue, a creature so awesomely grotesque that everyone is in awe of it almost each and every night. A character that, while almost always in the light during his time with Colorado, has now taken the spotlight and used it as an opportunity to say, “I’m here and I’m not going anywhere but up!”

No, I’m not talking about Nathan MacKinnon, who is obviously a dominant force in this league and has had the least flashy 82 points (29 goals, 53 assists) in 58 games you’ve probably ever seen.

I’m talking about Cale Makar, a guy Avs fans will be going door to door in Denver to tell non-believers about the Avalanche’s lord and savior. The soon-to-be Norris Trophy-winning, new prototypical rear guard that can skate like he’s an ice dancer and score like he was born to do it. He defends like the best of them, particularly when paired with fellow stud Devon Toews, and the first thing he did after signing a MASSIVE contract extension worth $9 million a year was indulge himself with a Slurpee.

He’s a new kind of beast, one not to awaken if you’re on any of the 31 other NHL rosters. A monster on the ice sheets and a good guy on the streets.

“He’s a man,” MacKinnon said of the new Great 8. “He’s a man for sure.”

A man? The, dare I say, kid—he’s 23-years-old OK?—is Adonis. He’s Hercules and Achilles without weakness. He’s the real deal and his Norris-worthy season is just the tip of the Avs-berg.

“I’ve never seen a D dominate like Cale,” MacKinnon said when pondering aloud Makar’s award credentials. “I believe a little bit in a resume, just a touch. I mean, the year he had last year, and then he’s followed up this year being the best in the league two years in a row. I think he’s earned that award, not that he cares at all I don’t think. But I think he’s definitely earned it. I mean, he does everything right. He’s a hard-working kid and I don’t see why he shouldn’t win it this year.”

No disrespect to Nashville’s Roman Josi, whom MacKinnon called amazing, but what Makar is doing with relative ease is something astronomic. It’s of another dimension of this sport.

Makar leads NHL defensemen in even-strength goals (18) and total goals (26), trails Josi (9) for second among blue liners in power-play goals (8), is tied with Victor Hedman—another strong Norris candidate— with six game-winning goals, leads rear guards with 29 goals created, sits second in plus-minus (+45) among d-corps, has a healthy lead against his competitors with .37 goals per game and ranks second to Josi with .80 assists per game, tops blue liners with .41 goals created per game, and trails only teammate Mikko Rantanen (153) in the number of total team goals he’s been on the ice for (151).

The guy is a playmaker, space creator, humble Canadian, local hero, national superstar, quiet leader, and likely the future captain of the team one day. His emergence into the upper echelon of historical NHL talent, which includes setting the franchise record for most goals by a d-man (26) and tying Steve Duchesne’s record for the most points by a blue liner (82), is bolstered by the fact that Makar’s 176 points (46 goals, 130 assists) in 171 games is the MOST EVER by a rear guard in that span. In points per game among players with staying power, the perky Calgary native ranks fourth behind legends Bobby Orr (1.39), Harry Cameron (1.10), and Paul Coffey (1.09).

When he beat Sandis Ozolinsh’s 1996-97 record for most goals, Makar found out about it from teammates on the bench.

“Mikko told me, actually, on the bench,” said Makar. “It’s pretty special, but those goals go back to the team. It’s awesome to achieve something like that, but at the end of the day, we’re focused on this last run in the regular season.”

He even admitted he didn’t really know he was on the verge of just another inking of his name in the annals of Colorado Avalanche and Quebec Nordiques greatness. It was just another day/just another game for the wunderkind.

So if you’re looking for the intangible, unspeakable, unquantifiable difference making THING, that IT FACTOR to take this team from routine goodness to one-of-a-kind greatness, you may not need to look any further than No. 8 on your roster and No. 1 in your heart.

Cale Makar has the thing.

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