Sports

Keeler: Can Avalanche trust Valeri Nichushkin again? “Only he can answer that”


How do you forgive a brother who won’t stop breaking your heart?

“Can they trust him?” ESPN analyst and former NHL goalie Kevin Weekes replied when I asked about Valeri Nichushkin, the Avalanche’s prodigal son. “Only he can answer that. Hopefully, they can.”

Hopefully. The Avs are in trouble deep without him, limping into Game 5 of their best-of-seven playoff series with the Dallas Stars on Wednesday on a three-game losing skid while staring at a 3-1 hole.

Nichushkin, Colorado’s mercurial winger, was suspended by the NHL for six months for violating Stage 2 of the Player Assistance Program before Game 4 at Ball Arena. The shock of the news, coupled with Devon Toews’ injury scratch, put his teammates into a daze from which they never truly recovered. Dallas pounced to a 3-0 lead and rolled, 5-1, thanks to a pair of empty-netters.

“You lose Taser (Devon Toews) and Val (Nichushkin), (those) are big pieces,” second-line center Casey Mittelstadt, who scored the hosts’ only goal during a sad evening, told reporters Tuesday. “And so maybe a little bit (of an adjustment). But you know, (it) seems like we’ve got a really close group in here … guys are ready to step in.

“And yes, (it’s) maybe a little bit (different with no Val) but I think it’s also on us to be ready.”

It’s on Nuke to win back hearts. And minds. Starting with the ones in the Colorado locker room. Quick as he is, Nathan MacKinnon can’t skate away from Father Time forever. Contracts expire. Windows slam shut. The next dynasty elbows its way to the mountain top.

“But if I’m the Avs, they have to be wondering the same thing that you’re wondering,” Weekes continued. “So I understand. They’ve got to be wondering (as) they’ve got designs on winning another Cup. And now with this — it doesn’t enhance their chances, by any stretch. It kind of compounds the difficulty of being able to do that.”

Ya think? The Avs will take the ice at American Airlines Center without Nichushkin, who vanished from their first-round series with Seattle last April under mysterious circumstances, in a postseason tilt for the seventh time over the last 13 months. They won just two of those other six games.

Flip side of the coin: Since April 2022, the Avs are 22-8 (.733) whenever Nichushkin suits up for them in the postseason. After the holy trinity of MacKinnon, Cale Makar and Mikko Rantanen, The Chu Chu Train is the most crucial cog of the engine. Especially at this time of year, when mismatches on the power play — at 6-foot-4, Nichushkin blots out the sun as well as opposing goalies’ vision — can often mean the difference between parades and penitence.

“This is clearly a challenge that he’s facing,” Weekes continued, “and it’s not limited to him. We all face our own challenges in life.

“In saying that, he is a real piece of their team. We know, obviously, Cale Makar is already one of the best (in the …read more

Source:: The Denver Post – Sports

      

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