The Front Range
Makowksi a Leader on the Denver Blueline
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
Just west of Magness Arena, home of the Denver Pioneers, sits the Front Range, the imposing snow-capped mountains of the southern Rockies. The Range includes many of Colorado’s famed 50-plus “fourteeners” – mountains like Longs Peak, Mount Evans, and Pikes Peak (atop which Katherine Lee Bates penned “America the Beautiful”) that, by definition, elevate over 14,000 feet above sea level.
Pioneers junior defenseman David Makowski has certainly, on more than one occasion, been described as imposing as well, and thus far in the 2012-13 campaign – one which began with question marks after the early departures of Drew Shore and Jason Zucker – Makowski and his fellow defensemen have formed a front range at the Denver blueline that has proven increasingly difficult for opponents to pass.
The Pioneers have allowed just 1.88 goals per game thus far this season, good for a top-five ranking nationally for team defense.
But a closer look reveals that the strength of the blueliners, including Makowski, has in fact extended to the offensive zone, where Denver’s defensemen have accounted for almost 40 percent of the team’s point production thus far, including a third of the team’s goals.
And Makowski’s four goals so far are just one shy of the team lead. Without question, it’s been a good start for the junior from Wildwood, Mo., especially after the hardships he experienced not even a year ago.
After a robust rookie campaign that included 30 points in 41 games and the honor of being named to the All-WCHA Rookie Team, Makowski missed the final 23 games of his sophomore season after struggling with symptoms that were ultimately attributed to severe migraines.
The time off, however, may have come with a silver lining.
“More than anything, it gave me an opportunity to watch and see how my teammates play,” said Makowski. “It gave me an opportunity to be a cheerleader, so to speak, for the team. It was a tough year, but I’m glad I’m back.
“You learn to appreciate how badly you love playing,” added Denver head coach George Gwozdecky. “I think he gained a better perspective on being able to play.”
That perspective has translated into an evolving on-ice role for Makowski. After helping quarterback the Pioneers’ second power play unit during his freshman year, the rejuvenated Makowski finds himself much closer to the opposing net in man-advantage situations.
“They put me down low on the power play when I’m used to playing up top,” said the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Makowski. “It’s a new opportunity, and I’m taking it full stride.”
The move has resulted in immediate success. The junior defenseman – ironically once known for scoring one of college hockey’s most memorable shorthanded goals ever – has three power play goals already. He’s tied for second in the nation in that category.
So, why the change?
Explained Gwozdecky, “We’ve been experimenting with a lot of guys in the early part of the season. I don’t think it was anybody’s intention to be able to play David down low on the power play near the net area. But we discovered that he has that ability to take the puck and be very aggressive in taking it to the net.
“There have been other guys who have played that position in the past who, when they get that puck, they start looking for someone to pass the puck to. There’s that hesitation even though there’s a lane to the net. David doesn’t hesitate. If he knows there’s a lane there, he’s going to take it. It’s nice to see him more and more comfortable there with every shift he gets, every game he plays.”
Aside from Makowski, fellow blueliners Joey LaLeggia (the WCHA Rookie of the Year a season ago) and Nolan Zajac (youngest brother of New Jersey Devils forward Travis) are off to hot starts as well, leading the nation in scoring from defensemen.
To say this type of play from the Pioneers’ blueline was imperative for Denver is an understatement. But Gwozdecky was counting on it.
“We’ve emphasized that from day one,” said Gwozdecky, the only individual in college hockey history to have won national titles as a player, an assistant coach, and a head coach. “As a coaching staff, we knew that was going to be one of our strengths. We want to be able to have our defensemen attack when they’re on the ice and not sit back and transition and watch the puck ahead. We work on it, we design plays for it. So far, it’s been a factor in our success – no question.”
Added Makowski, who before coming to Denver was the USHL Defenseman of the Year, “We’re rolling seven D right now – it’s a good thing to have, and we don’t necessarily have a ‘1 through 7.’”
The next several weeks for Denver include series against rivals Colorado College, North Dakota, and Wisconsin, as well as non-conference matchups against eastern foes Yale, New Hampshire, Boston University, and Cornell – all of whom will travel to play the Pioneers in the thin air of Denver. The big picture, of course, for the ever-consistent Pioneers – winners of 20-plus games for 10 consecutive seasons – is the ongoing journey to return to the form that allowed them to win back-to-back national championships in 2004 and 2005.
Certainly, they’re mile-high – perhaps even 14,000-feet high – expectations. But with Makowski, LaLeggia, Zajac, and a dynamic defensive corps playing the way they are, perhaps the Pioneers are as close as ever to meeting them.