Picking a favorite Joe Sakic steal is like having to pick a favorite kid. But a tip of the salary cap to the $850,000 the Avalanche general manager gave Valeri Nichushkin three summers ago, a deal that’s aged like the finest of wines.
“You know, I think about that (sometimes),” Nichushkin, the two-way forward — whose chef’s-kiss dish to Andrew Burakovsky during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals set up Burakovsky’s game-winning overtime laser — reflected earlier this week .
“Like where I was three years ago and where I’m at now. Feels good, you know?”
Avs 4, Lightning 3. Feels great, now that you mention it.
“He has been awesome,” defenseman Bo Byram said of his Russian teammate, who notched a goal and an assist in Game 1 on a team-high six shots. “(Nichushkin) is a playoff-type player.”
On the NHL’s deepest roster, the 27-year-old winger keeps finding ways to stand out — and not just because he’s 6-foot-4 in flip-flops.
Once the Stanley Cup turns on that spotlight, there’s nowhere to hide. You don’t find the moment. The moment finds you.
And yet the more they’ve cranked up the temperature, the cooler Nichushkin’s looked. Only Nathan MacKinnon (11 goals), Gabe Landeskog (nine) and Artturi Lehkonen (seven) have lit the lamp more times during this playoff run than No. 13’s six.
The peanut gallery on Twitter will tell you that any schmo would look salty on a line that also features MacKinnon and Landeskog running alongside. But coach Jared Bednar’s gambit to keep Nichushkin as that top group’s right wing has come up aces on at least two fronts.
For one, moving Mikko Rantanen to the Avs’ second line gave the latter more firepower. For another, while Rantanen and center Nazem Kadri forged a relationship that’s looked almost telepathic at times, Nichushkin over the past six weeks has elevated almost every on-ice combination he’s found himself a part of.
“He’s a huge X-factor,” Bednar said of Nichushkin after Game 1. “He’s been doing (those) kind of things for us for a couple years now. (What) an incredible season he’s had so far. He’s been a difference-maker almost every night for us.”
Big Val’s always had the physical attributes — size, speed, vision, defensive nous, soft hands — to flip the script with a flick of the wrist. But when you chuck a bucket full of confidence, poise and swagger to the mix, it’s a matchup nightmare. Even for the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.
“He skates (well). He’s big. He’s physical,” Byram said of Nichushkin, who netted a career-high 25 goals during the regular season. “He’s definitely been one of our best players for the playoffs. We’re very fortunate to have him.”
Hanging onto him, though? That’s the tricky part. Nichushkin, like Kadri, is slated to become an unrestricted free agent after this magic carpet ride ends. And like Kadri, it’s hard to imagine the Avs dancing this far without him.
“It’s (been) amazing,” Nichuskin said of Avs fans. “I like to walk a lot. And when I walk outside, I feel like everybody knows me … it feels nice.”
It feels like home. A guy that the Dallas Stars once left out on the street like an old sofa has proven to be a trusted, integral piece of furniture here ever since.
“His ability to check and check pucks back and keep us playing offense — you saw his play,” Bednar gushed. “(He) had some really good scoring chances for himself.”
And set up one whale of a scoring chance for Burakovsky, to boot. The $850,000 gift that keeps on giving.
Keeping Big Val in burgundy is going to cost a heck of a lot more than that, of course. Although after Wednesday’s game, it’s hard to argue that it wouldn’t be worth every penny.