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    College Hockey

    As playoffs begin, UMass and Harvard follow the lead of their blue-chip blue liners

    Umass Amherst sophomore defenseman Cale Makar (16) celebrates a goal against Princeton sophomore goaltender Ryan Ferland (30) in the first period at the Mullins Center in Amherst, Massachusetts on November 24, 2018. UMass defeated Princeton 3-2 in overtime. Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe
    Matthew Healey for the Globe
    Sophomore Cale Makar had 13 goals and 29 assists for UMass this season.

    When they’re on the ice, things happen.

    This hockey season, the state of Massachusetts has been home to two defensemen with dazzling national profiles: sophomore Cale Makar at No. 3-ranked University of Massachusetts and junior Adam Fox at 14th-ranked Harvard. They’re not just leading the defense, they’re leading everybody.

    Like mirror images, one on the eastern end of Massachusetts and one toward the west, the two have dominated college hockey this year.

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    Makar, 20, is a Canadian from Calgary and Fox, 21, is an American from Long Island. Each is a swift-skating right-shot defenseman. Makar is 5-11¾ and 192 pounds, Fox is 5-10, 185.

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    Both lead their teams in scoring; at the end of the regular season, Makar had 13 goals and 29 assists for 42 points in 34 games (No. 1 in Hockey East scoring, tied for sixth nationally) and Fox had 8-32—40 in 29 games (No. 4 in ECAC points, No. 1 in assists in ECAC and second nationally, tied for 14th nationally in points). Fox had the better points-per-game average, 1.4 to Makar’s 1.2.

    Both have international experience. Fox earned a gold medal with the US team in the world junior championships as a freshman, then got a bronze in 2018, while Makar was picking up gold with Canada.

    Both are smart, brimming with that ineffable quality called hockey IQ. It’s as if they know something no one else does.

    And now both are steps away from the NHL. Makar was a first-round draft pick of the Colorado Avalanche — the Minutemen’s only first-round pick in program history — and Fox a third-round pick by Calgary, which has since traded his rights to Carolina. Websites populated by fans of Colorado and Carolina are frothing with chatter about the young prospects, hopeful they’ll forgo the final year, or years, of college.

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    “I think you’re looking at the two best players in the NCAA in Adam and in Cale,’’ said former NHL general manager and TSN analyst Craig Button. “I think those are the two best players. The way they control their game, command the game, dictate the game, to me they stand a cut above everybody else this year.”

    Makar is explosive, able to charge the length of the ice faster than this sentence; Fox is fast, too, but works his particular brand of magic with his mind, er, outfoxing other players with his movements. He freezes opponents. Lean left, go right is the simplest form of deception; even at a recent practice, he was fooling a teammate into following his body movement to the left only to have his stick flash out to the right to stop the player’s progress.

    Harvard’s Adam Fox was 8-32—40 this season.
    Damian Strohmeyer/AP
    Harvard’s Adam Fox was 8-32—40 this season.

    Harvard coach Ted Donato said Fox is fun to watch.

    “Whether it’s the players or the coaching staff,” Donato said, “there’s several times a game where you hear a few chuckles on the bench because he’s just got people spinning in circles.”

    UMass coach Greg Carvel said nearly the same thing about Makar.

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    “I enjoy watching him practice,” Carvel said. “If you know the game of hockey, you have respect for his talent.”

    Donato said Fox reminds him of former Bruin Brad Park.

    “[Park] would come up the ice and he would be giving off such incredible false information it’d feel like everybody was just skating away from him,” said Donato. “Sure enough, he looked up, he still had the puck.”

    Fox said his father got him started on playing with poise.

    “From a young age, my dad has always preached having patience with the puck, and he never really wanted me rimming it up to wingers and trying to make a play,” Fox said. “Obviously there are scenarios where you’ve got to get rid of it, but for me it’s always trying to make a play and set other people up to be in good position.’’

    What Fox appreciates most are the small plays.

    “Everyone likes a nice goal, a nice assist,” he said, “but I like when someone makes a nice little cheeky pass or one of those plays, there’s guys that can slip it to the center or something. I’m always a fan of those little plays. That’s something I love to do.”

    Fox came to Harvard from the US National Development Program, where he led all Under-18 defensemen in goals, assists, and points with 9-50—59 in 64 games in 2015-16. After a stunning freshman season and a not-as-good sophomore year, he’s trying to take Harvard on a run in the ECAC playoffs.

    The Crimson (17-9-3, 13-7-2 ECAC) are ranked No. 14 and are on the bubble for an NCAA bid. Harvard, which had a bye for the first round of the ECAC tournament, hosts Dartmouth (13-15-4, 10-9-3) Friday in the first game of a best-of-three quarterfinal series.

    Something else the duo share is a modest approach. If there is an outstanding elite hockey player more humble than Fox, then it just might be Cale Makar.

    Makar came to UMass from the Alberta Junior Hockey League, where he totaled 135 career points on 35 goals and 100 assists over 111 regular-season contests for the Brooks Bandits. He was the right guy at the right time as Carvel focused on building a team culture with high standards.

    Makar, with his offensive brilliance coupled with his team-first attitude, has helped carry the team to its first Hockey East regular-season title and a near-season-long perch in the top three of the national rankings.

    Like Fox, Makar is a master of poise under pressure. Vermont saw his elite skating up close in last year’s Hockey East playoffs. Blasting up the ice at top speed, he slipped smoothly around one opponent, then faked as if to split two defenders, but instead dangled around the left one and tucked a forehand shot into the net.

    “Sixteen’s a hard player to contain,’’ Boston College coach Jerry York said after the Eagles dropped a weekend series to the Minutemen in February. “He’s an outstanding player. He’s big, he’s strong . . . he’s hard to contain.”

    Makar particularly likes the transition game, when players are jumping up into the rush.

    “It’s always fun when we transition from the defensive zone to the offensive zone,” Makar said. “You just get to skate as fast as you can up the ice. Anytime you get to open the jets, it’s pretty fun.”

    As Button noted, “He can beat pressure. He can get up the ice really quickly.”

    To Carvel, Makar’s offensive skills tell only half the story of his development in the last two years.

    “He’s recognized for his offensive impact, but defensively, he limits teams,” Carvel said. “His hockey sense, his skating, and his puck skills, which all help him be an extremely good offensive player, help him be an extremely good defensive player.

    “And so as much as he’s scoring goals, he’s limiting the other team. His skating ability just takes away time and space. The other team might have a breakaway and Cale will catch him from behind. His skating makes him an extremely effective player.

    “So he’s got 42 points this year, but he also probably prevented 42 goals from the other team scoring.”

    UMass (26-8-0, 18-6-0 Hockey East) hosts New Hampshire (12-13-9, 8-10-6) in their quarterfinal opener in the conference playoffs.

    This could be the last collegiate hurrah for Makar and Fox, though both insist they won’t focus on the decision to go pro until after the college season has ended.

    “I think I’m getting there,” Makar said. “The playoffs are going to be a telltale sign in terms of consistency and physical play, but I think at the end of the day I’ve accomplished a lot of the things that I wanted to learn, especially that I wanted to add to my game as well.”

    Tournament schedule

    Hockey East first round

    (Best-of-3)

    Friday

    Maine at NU, 7 p.m.

    BC at Providence, 7 p.m.

    New Hampshire at UMass, 7 p.m.

    Boston University at UMass Lowell, 7:15 p.m.

    Saturday

    Maine at NU, 7 p.m.

    BC at Providence, 7 p.m.

    New Hampshire at UMass, 7 p.m.

    Boston University at UMass Lowell, 7 p.m.

    Sunday (If necessary)

    BU at UMass Lowell, 4 p.m.

    BC at Providence, 5 p.m.

    New Hampshire at UMass, 5 p.m.

    Maine at NU, 7 p.m.

    ECAC quarterfinal

    (Best-of-3)

    Friday

    Dartmouth at Harvard, 7 p.m.

    Saturday

    Dartmouth at Harvard, 7 p.m.

    Sunday (if necessary )

    Dartmouth at Harvard, 4 p.m.

    Barbara Matson can be reached at barbara.matson@globe.com