At this time a month ago, Cale Makar was preparing for the biggest games of his college hockey career as the University of Massachusetts was in the Frozen Four for the first time in program history.
Jump ahead to early May and every game Makar is playing right now is the next biggest one of the season with the Colorado Avalanche in the second round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The defenseman hasn't looked out of place in his first eight NHL contests and has played a significant role in the Avs' success in the postseason.
"I don't think it's fully kind of sunk in, and I don't really want it to right now," Makar said of his wild journey the past few weeks. "I think I'll worry about all that stuff after the fact, but it's been fun and it's such a great group of guys to come into."
The No. 4 overall pick of Colorado in the 2017 NHL Draft, Makar joined the Avs in the midst of their first-round playoff series against the Calgary Flames. He signed his entry-level contract with the Avalanche on April 14, two days after winning the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's top player and the morning after playing in the NCAA national championship game with UMass. The Calgary, Alberta, native made his NHL debut and scored his first goal the following day in Game 3 of the series against his hometown squad.
After eight outings with the Avalanche--all in the NHL postseason nonetheless--Makar has registered a goal and four assists. Among rookies in the playoffs, his five points share third place in scoring and are tied for the most by a defenseman.
Video: Cale Makar discusses Avalanche playoffs
What separates Makar from the other top first-year players is that he's the only one that didn't play a significant amount of NHL games during the regular season. The 20-year-old has been thrown into the toughest hockey of the year and has thrived.
"I think he's getting better within our system," said head coach Jared Bednar. "I think he's got a better understanding now that he's been here for a bit. He's picking up real quickly and obviously it's showing in his play."
Makar has earned the trust of Bednar and his staff throughout the second-round series against the San Jose Sharks. The rookie has been paired with fellow 20-year-old defenseman Samuel Girard during even-strength play since Game 2, and the duo has also co-quarterbacked the team's second power-play unit.
Makar is averaging 17:16 of total ice time and 1:43 on the power play per game.
"When I talk to those two players and we show them things, we watch team film, they're improving all the time," Bednar said of his young rear guards. "They're limiting their mistakes, and then obviously those two guys help us tremendously with the puck-moving side of things and creating offense. They have abilities there that some of our other guys don't."
Makar has three assists in the series against San Jose, including posting back-to-back helpers in Games 3 and 4. His apple in Game 4--his seventh career NHL game--came from a point shot that was deflected by Mikko Rantanen before Nathan MacKinnon batted in the loose puck.
MacKinnon, who entered the league in 2013 as an 18-year-old and went on to win the Calder Memorial Trophy as rookie of the year, is impressed with what he's seen so far from Makar on the sport's biggest stage.
"It's amazing how comfortable he is in his first seven games of his career and being in the playoffs," MacKinnon said following Game 4. "He's going to be a special player."
Video: CGY@COL, Gm3: Makar scores in NHL debut
Makar says the biggest adjustment to the NHL has been the physicality, but he has held his own with his 5-foot-11, 187-pound frame. His 10 takeaways are the most among league rookies in the postseason and his 10 blocks rank third among his peers.
In the locker room, the adjustment to the pro game has been fairly smooth. He's was immediately accepted as one of the guys that can help in the squad's pursuit of a championship.
"Right when I came in you could just tell everybody had a great relationship with one another," Makar said. "There was just a really good sense of commitment in terms of what their goal was as a team and everybody just buys into that."