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On the defensive: Avs no-name blue liners raising their game

Colorado Avalanche's Patrik Nemeth, center, pushes Calgary Flames' Sam Bennett away from Avalanche goalie Philipp Grubauer during the second period of Game 2 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series Saturday, April 13, 2019, in Calgary, Alberta. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press via AP)

By PAT GRAHAM

AP Sports Writer

DENVER (AP) In between homework assignments this season at Massachusetts, Cale Makar brushed up on the Colorado Avalanche blue line.

The rookie defenseman studied as much film as he could of his soon-to-be teammates in order to lessen his learning curve.

His takeaway from his crash course: No one tries to take on too much.

Colorado may not have anyone up for big awards among its blue liners or even a name that casual fans might recognize. Instead, the defense relies on a strength-in-numbers approach, with everyone filling a different role.

"On championship teams, everybody has to know their role they play in order to succeed," said Makar, whose squad starts a second-round series on Friday at San Jose after dispatching Calgary, the top seed in the West. "They're a very consistent `D-core,' always good night in and night out."

Tyson Barrie provides the offensive force; Nikita Zadorov, the big hits; Erik Johnson, the glue; Ian Cole, the bruise-leaving blocked shots; Samuel Girard, the flash; and Patrik Nemeth, the consistent tenacity. As for Makar, he's the playmaker in training who made his NHL debut in Game 3 and scored a goal .

"Everyone's playing to what they're capable of," Barrie said. "We all have roles and we're all accepting of it."

The Avalanche held the high-scoring Flames to just 11 goals in the five-game series and shut down Johnny Gaudreau. Now, they turn their attention to Tomas Hertl, Brent Burns and the rest of the Sharks. It's a team they went 0-3 against in the regular season and were outscored by a 14-9 margin.

But that was pre-Makar. He's been a welcome addition since joining the team after his college hockey season concluded with a UMass loss in the Frozen Four championship game.

"Adding a guy like Cale mid-playoffs, that's a big boost. It's not every day you can do that," Barrie said. "We're playing real solid team defense. It's a good feeling right now."

Typically, the Avalanche headlines center on Nathan MacKinnon and the offense. Rightfully so, with MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen among the playoff scoring leaders.

"It's nice to have a `D-core' that's getting a little recognition because I think it's been questioned in the past," Barrie said. "So we'll take some spotlight."

A glimpse at some of the defensemen's achievements this season:

- Zadorov topped the team in hits for a third straight season.

- Barrie scored a career-high 59 points in the regular season, the most by an Avs defenseman since Ray Bourque had 59 in 2000-01.

- Johnson led the squad in shifts per game.

- Nemeth finished second on the squad in average short-handed ice time.

- Girard played in all 82 games and committed just three minor penalties. He could be back for the Sharks series after missing the last three games with an upper body injury.

- Cole registered a team-high 178 blocked shots.

"The old stereotypical defenseman that bangs it off the glass and out, there's no real role for that guy in the NHL anymore," Cole said. "In today's NHL, you have to be able to defend, have to be able to skate, have to be able to make plays, have to help produce offense. Everyone knows the template that we play as a team."

Goaltender Philipp Grubauer helps keep things running smoothly in the back. He's constantly calling out orders - "You've got time." Or "Go up the wall with the puck." Or even "Watch out!"

"Just small, simple commands," said Grubauer, who posted a 1.89 goals-against average against Calgary. "I try to help point them into the right direction."

To make sure he fit in seamlessly, Makar learned as much about the Avalanche as he could. The fourth overall pick in 2017 signed a three-year deal on April 14 and was instantly thrown into the playoff race.

He proved to be as speedy as advertised.

Off the ice, he's feeling right at home, too, thanks to being taken under the wing of veteran Matt Calvert. Makar is living in his basement.

"Amazing family," Makar said. "It makes my days a lot easier."

The Avs have weathered their share of trying times this season. During a particularly rough patch starting in January when the squad went 0-5-3, they were allowing an average of 4.4 goals. But down the stretch - facing must-win games when they were 8-0-2 - they allowed 1.8 goals a game.

In the Calgary series, the defense held firm in surrendering 2.2 goals.

"It's always a growing process," Cole said. "You start to learn the tendencies and what guys look for in certain situations and you build that chemistry. Maybe we don't have the flashiest numbers as far as points or whatever, but we do a lot of good things to help our team win hockey games. That's really all that matters at this time of the year, right?"

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Updated April 24, 2019

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