Valeri Nichushkin of Colorado Avalanche shines in Stanley Cup finals


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Denver — Colorado Avalanche forward Valeri Nichushkin can be described in many ways. Some of his teammates liken him to a train, a truck or a horse, while others stick with the physical attributes: big, long, strong and fast.

The descriptors can go on and on, but no matter how one wants to characterize the 27-year-old Russian, it all leads back to a couple common thoughts: His skill set is unlike any other; and on a team full of superstars, Nichushkin has emerged as one of Colorado’s most important players.

Nichushkin has eight goals in the postseason thus far, scoring twice in Colorado’s 7-0 blowout win in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning. He was inches away from a hat trick in the second period of Game 2, if not for Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who made a dazzling glove save to rob Nichushkin.

“Val some nights — most nights — is our best player, to be honest,” Colorado forward Andrew Cogliano said.

The series now shifts to Tampa Bay, with Monday’s Game 3 at Amalie Arena.

Avalanche puts a touchdown on Lightning, take command of Stanley Cup finals

Nichushkin is a pending unrestricted free agent and is expected to sign a significant contract after his impressive season. He has been one of the best players — if not the best — in these Stanley Cup finals. Nichushkin has three goals and one assist in the series.

“He’s been a horse for us all playoffs,” said Colorado center Alex Newhook. “It’s been fun to watch. He goes out there and does everything right, he does everything well. He plays in every situation and he’s a truck for us. He’s been doing everything right.”

Colorado Coach Jared Bednar said Nichushkin was simply “built for this time of year.” Nichushkin has been paired on Colorado’s top line with center Nathan MacKinnon and winger Gabriel Landeskog.

“He’s such a hard-working guy and shows on ice,” Colorado defenseman Cale Makar said. “He’s so valuable for us in every single zone … you see his offensive talent that he’s shown lately. He’s the full package. He’s been incredible for us. He’s such a driven human being.”

And while Nichushkin has thrived in his role with Colorado this season, that wasn’t always the case.

Nichushkin was once a heralded prospect, selected 10th overall in the 2013 NHL draft by the Dallas Stars. Nichushkin had a promising start, recording 14 goals and 20 assists as a rookie during the 2013-14 season.

But in his second season, things took a turn. He had hip surgery and played in only eight games. He had a subpar 2015-16 season in Dallas before he returned to Russia to play in the Kontinental Hockey League for two seasons. He then returned to Dallas for the 2018-19 season, a year he failed to record a single goal and had only 10 assists.

“In Dallas, it was maybe just a different scenario,” said Cogliano, who played with Nichushkin in Dallas in 2018-19. “I don’t think he was comfortable there. I think there were different things going on … since coming here, I haven’t seen a level of play from a guy consistently — a 200-foot game offensively and defensively — like I’ve been seeing in Val.”

Former Caps winger Andre Burakovsky ready to write his own story in Colorado

Nichushkin was bought out by the Stars during the 2019 offseason and the Avalanche signed him to a one-year, one-way $850,000 contract in August 2019. He recorded 13 goals and 27 points in 57 games. He re-signed for two years in October 2020 and has been a needed force in the Colorado room.

This year, Nichushkin scored 25 goals in the regular season for the first time in his career. He finished with 52 points.

“It feels like he’s way more consistent now,” said Josh Manson, one of Colorado’s key trade deadline acquisitions in March. “He fits in the structure so well, he forechecks so hard. He’s such a big, strong guy. He’s lanky and he just constantly puts you under pressure and he’s strong enough to turn the puck over. He’s been amazing ever since I got here.”

Nichushkin’s development has been a product of his work ethic and internal motivation since he arrived in Colorado. Bednar said most nights, whenever he is looking at video after a game, he’ll think he’s the last one there. But, when he turns the corner to leave, he’ll often see Nichushkin walk out of the room, just getting done with a weight room session after the game.

The next morning? Nichushkin’s the first one in the room.

“This is a guy that is highly dedicated, highly motivated … he’s found his place here,” Bednar said.


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