Valeri Nichushkin of Colorado Avalanche shines in Stanley Cup finals

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DENVER — Valeri Nichushkin’s Colorado Avalanche teammates describe him in many ways. Some liken the winger to a train, a truck or a horse, while others stick with his physical attributes: big, long, strong and fast.

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

Nichushkin has eight goals in 16 postseason games, and he scored twice in Colorado’s 7-0 blowout of the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals Saturday night. He was inches from a hat trick in the second period, but Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy made a dazzling glove save.

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

The series now shifts to Tampa, with Monday night’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, so his offensive outburst — which followed a strong regular season in which he had 25 points and 27 assists, both career highs, in 62 games — couldn’t have come at a better time. He has been one of the best players, if not the best, in the Stanley Cup finals, notching three goals and an assist.

“He’s been a horse for us all playoffs,” Colorado center Alex Newhook said. “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.”

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

“He’s such a hard-working guy, and it shows on ice,” 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.”

Nichushkin has thrived in his role with Colorado, but that wasn’t always the case.

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

But in his second season, things took a turn. He had hip surgery and played in only eight NHL games. He had a subpar 2015-16 before he returned to Russia to play in the Continental Hockey League for two seasons. He then to Dallas for 2018-19 but failed to score a single goal and posted only 10 assists in 57 games.

“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’s contract was bought out by the Stars in June 2019, and the Avalanche signed him to a one-year, $850,000 contract before he posted 13 goals and 14 assists in 65 games. He signed for two years and $5 million in October 2020 and, after another quiet season in 2020-21, has emerged as a force this season.

“It feels like he’s way more consistent now,” said defenseman Josh Manson, one of Colorado’s trade deadline acquisitions. “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 in Colorado has been a product of his work ethic. Bednar said most nights, when he is watching video after a game, he’ll think he’s the last one in the building. But, when he turns the corner to leave, often he’ll see Nichushkin walk out of the room, having just wrapped up a weight room session.

The next morning? Nichushkin very well could be the first one there.

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

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