Valeri Nichushkin stood in front of a poster of Alex Ovechkin hoisting the Stanley Cup on the eve of his first trip to the final and remembered what it was like to witness that moment.
“That was fun to watch when Ovi win it, especially when he celebrated,” he said. “I think that was one of the best things.”
One thing better for Nichushkin would be hoisting hockey’s holy grail himself.
“I hope so,” he said. “We’ll see.”
Nichushkin and the Colorado Avalanche are two wins away from doing just that, and the big Russian winger is a big reason why they’ll take a 2-1 lead over the back-to-back defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning into Game 4 on Wednesday. He was tied for the team lead in goals with three, set up Andre Burakovsky for his overtime winner in the series opener and scored in Game 3 before it was called back for an oh-so-close offside.
He has consistently been the best player on the ice in the final, hounding the puck, forcing turnovers and creating offense.
“He’s built for this time of year,” coach Jared Bednar said. “Big, long, strong, fast, tenacious, hungry, relentless on the puck, finishing off the chances he gets. He can play with top guys. You can move him up and down the lineup, plays power play, penalty kill. I mean, I don’t know what else to say about the guy.”
Nichushkin, who hasn’t spoken to reporters since the series began, has been a pest on defense, as usual, but has added some offense that was missing for much of his playoff career in the NHL.
Over his first 28 postseason games with the Dallas Stars and Avalanche, Nichushkin had just one goal and two assists. That included a 25-game goal drought.
This postseason, he is among Colorado’s goal-scoring leaders with eight, trailing just Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. Nichushkin has received Selke Trophy votes for the league’s top defensive forward each of the past three seasons, but this offensive evolution is a development even his coach didn’t see coming.
“I’m a little bit surprised at where he’s gotten to with his game,” Bednar said before describing why he perhaps shouldn’t be so surprised. “I’ll be cutting video after a game, trying to get some work done to lighten the load for the next morning and I’ll be the last one there, the trainers are leaving and I’ll be walking out of the room and I’ll see Val walk out of the room. He’s just getting done lifting. That’s just the type of guy he is.”
That strength has been obvious on the ice early in the final, outmuscling Lightning players to get to quality scoring areas and winning board battles to get the puck back.
Defenseman Josh Manson remembers playing against Nichushkin while with Anaheim and just how much of a struggle he was to deal with.
“It feels like he’s way more consistent with it now,” Manson said. “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.”
So strong teammate J.T. Compher referred to Nichushkin as “a horse.” Physically, yes, but he has also shown smarts, like shaking free of a defender to be in place for his power-play goal that jumpstarted a 7-0 rout in Game 2.
In a lot of ways, Nichushkin fit the bill for what Colorado was looking for to augment the flashy skill of MacKinnon, Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar. His offense is almost a bonus after all he has done for the Avalanche in three seasons.
“The system that we play, what we sort of demand of our players on the defensive side of it, is a huge strength of Val’s,” Bednar said. “And he’s obviously a big, long, strong guy that can skate and sort of fits our mold playing a high-pace, north game and the battles, the races that he can win, I think it just kind of fits his style. He’s found his place here.”
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno