Val Nichushkin, Human Blind Spot, is still better with one working ankle than most NHL forwards are on two.
The Avalanche’s big forward has played in just 16 games this season. Colorado’s won 11 of those bad boys, including Monday’s Martin Luther King Day beatdown of the Detroit Red Wings.
The cracks in the Avs’ roller-coaster Stanley Cup defense run deeper than that, of course. But it’s an awfully telling stat.
“There’s only one Val in the league,” teammate Nathan MacKinnon said after the Avs’ 6-3 victory, one that saw No. 13 contribute a point and four shots in his first game of 2023.
“He’s a presence,” Avs forward Evan Rodrigues added.
“A huge guy,” noted goaltender Pavel Francouz, who won his second straight start. “He’s dangerous.”
He completes them, doesn’t he? Goalies can’t see around Big Val. Defensemen can’t bump him off his station. Even when down a gear, No. 13 is still 76 inches of angry. He still roots to a spot on the ice the way a mighty oak does to soft earth.
“I know how hard it is if you park such a guy in front of your face,” Francouz chuckled, because he’s had the 6-foot-4 Nichushkin parked in front of his mug at practice for ages. “And he’s not scared of the puck, so it’s a huge help for the guys on the power play.
“You’re always battling for the line (of sight), but there’s a lot of guys going back and forth, and sometimes you just can’t find (the puck). So when that happens (with Val), and when one of the top players such as Nathan MacKinnon are shooting, it’s a deadly combination.”
For a few hours Monday, they were deadly. Deadly, fast, and scoring for fun. It was as if Spring 2022 dropped in for a visit, propped its feet up on the back of Red Wings goalie Ville Husso and lit up a giant victory cigar. Just like old times.
“When (Nichuskin) is in our lineup, he makes us better at the end of the day,” veteran forward Andrew Cogliano told me after the game. “We need him. We need depth, (where) guys go back to (their) usual spots. And when he’s in the lineup, guys do that.”
Hot tubs. Cold tubs. Duct tape. Chewing gum. Piano wire. Whatever it takes to keep Big Val on the ice for the next five months, the Avs have to do it.
Nichushkin wasn’t remotely up to speed Monday. There were shifts that looked rusty, others that looked careful.
He STILL scared the holy crud out of the Wings. Especially once the hosts hit the power play.
On the Avs’ first stint with the extra man, Nichushkin mistimed one centering pass, then appeared to mishit another before the advantage got killed off. Yet the stretch also offered the Avs — who’d made good on 2 for their previous 27 with the advantage — at least three good cracks at the back of the net. Just having No. 13 as a stationary object created freedom to move, freedom to shoot.
Finally, on Colorado’s third power play, that movement broke through Detroit’s flagging rampart. The big Avs forward camped out in front of the crease, a rock as the waves of burgundy swirled around him, screening Husso long enough for Cale Makar to rifle the hosts to a 2-0 cushion from the blue line.
“When you get to the special teams, I think it’s all about the skill set and what they can provide to the group on the power play,” coach Jared Bednar noted, “and (Nichushkin) is a big part of it.”
With 4:07 left in the second stanza, Nichushkin tied up his man immediately to Husso’s right, creating a traffic jam along the netminder’s stick side. As the scrum ensued, MacKinnon had enough space to zip from behind, crashing the left side and nudging a silky wrister past Husso for a 5-0 cushion.
“Getting our best player in the (Stanley Cup) Finals back in our lineup,” MacKinnon said later, “is big for our team.”
There’s only one Val. One standard.
Monday reminded everyone that the embers of 2021-22 are still there. Reminded Ball Arena that big No. 13, even at 75%, is still dangerous. And that whenever he’s on the ice, even on one good wheel, the Avs are, too.
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