Avalanche’s Valeri Nichushkin suspended at least six months

DENVER — Colorado Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said the pregame news of forward Valeri Nichushkin being suspended for at least six months was not “an excuse” for his team’s 5-1 loss Monday to the Dallas Stars in Game 4 of their Western Conference semifinal series.

The Avalanche have lost three straight games since coming back to win the series opener, with the Stanley Cup contenders now facing elimination.

“We’re not going to use that as an excuse. We can’t. We won’t,” Bednar said. “Again, we treat it just like [Logan O’Connor] — injured, done for the year. You get news like that all the time. You continue to play with the players that you have, and we have the ability to play a heck of a lot better than we did today regardless of any news.”

The news of Nichushkin being placed in Stage 3 of the NHL/NHL Players’ Association player assistance program was announced a little more than an hour before puck drop. No further information was given about why Nichushkin was admitted into the program.

Avalanche forward Casey Mittelstadt said that he and a few teammates found out about Nichushkin as they entered Ball Arena hours before they took the ice for pregame skate.

“We’re hoping Val’s OK and hoping for the best for him,” Mittelstadt said.

Avalanche defenseman Jack Johnson told The Denver Post after the game, “[Nichushkin] made his decisions. That’s all I’m going to say on that. He made his decisions.”

Earlier in the day, Nichushkin was on the ice for morning skate. After the game, the Avalanche had already removed his nameplate from his stall in the team’s dressing room.

A league source told ESPN that the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program has four stages. Stage 1 is the first in-patient treatment for which there is no penalty. In Stage 2, following a violation of the Stage 1 treatment plan, a player can be suspended without pay during the active phase of treatment and then become eligible for reinstatement.

Stage 3, following a violation of the Stage 2 treatment plan, carries a suspension without pay for at least six months after which a player can become eligible for reinstatement. Stage 4, following a violation of the Stage 3 treatment plan, carries a suspension of at least one year, and reinstatement is not assured.

Nichushkin will be suspended for at least six calendar months, which means the earliest he could return would be mid-November.

His absence meant the Avalanche were without their leading playoff goal scorer after Nichushkin recorded nine goals and 10 points in eight games.

Bednar adjusted a lineup that was also missing defenseman Devon Toews because of illness but returned Jonathan Drouin, who had been out since April 20 because of a lower-body injury.

In Saturday’s Game 3, the Avalanche used an aggressive approach to control possession and launch shots from all angles only for the Stars to score the first goal for a third straight game en route to a 4-1 Colorado defeat.

On Monday, the Stars were the more aggressive team. They outshot the Avalanche by a 16-2 spread in the first period and took a 2-0 lead through Wyatt Johnston, who on the eve of his 21st birthday scored less than six minutes into the second frame after also scoring in the first.

Dallas pushed it to 3-0 when defenseman Miro Heiskanen‘s shot from the left point beat Colorado goaltender Alexandar Georgiev. A little more than a minute later, the Avs cut the lead to 3-1 when Mittelstadt scored on a goal assisted by Drouin.

A narrative of the series has been how the Stars keep getting early leads only to have the Avalanche win, as they did in Game 1, or come really close, which is what happened in Games 2 and 3.

Mittelstadt’s goal was as close as the Avalanche would get. The Stars padded their lead to 4-1 off a goal from Evgenii Dadonov about halfway through the third, while Sam Steel‘s empty-netter with less than two minutes left made it 5-1.

“Us, as a group, as a whole, we got better than that. That was our worst game of the series,” Bednar said. “It looked like it was a struggle for our guys. It looked like we lacked energy. It looked like we were the really tired team, and they were the fresh team. I don’t have the answer for that. I wish I did.”

Bednar would later describe his team’s four-goal defeat as “atrocious.”

Even for all the questions facing the Avalanche about avoiding elimination, much of the attention remained on Nichushkin, as this will be his third absence in the past 13 months.

The 29-year-old Nichushkin’s previous absence from the Avalanche was in mid-January when he was admitted into the player assistance program for undisclosed reasons. At the time, it was announced that he would be out for an indefinite period.

Nichushkin resumed skating with the Avalanche in late February before returning to the lineup March 8 in their 2-1 overtime win against the Minnesota Wild.

His first absence away from the Avalanche was in April 2023 when he missed the final five games of a first-round series that ended with the Avs losing to the Seattle Kraken. That time, the team said Nichushkin left for personal reasons. His absence came after police officers responded to a crisis call at the team’s hotel in Seattle on the afternoon before the Avalanche and Kraken played Game 3 of their quarterfinal series.

A 28-year-old woman was in an ambulance when officers arrived, and medics were told to speak with an Avalanche team physician to receive more details.

The police report, which was obtained by ESPN, among other outlets, said the Avalanche’s physician told officers that team employees found the woman when they were checking on Nichushkin. The physician told police that the woman appeared to be intoxicated and was too intoxicated to have left the hotel “in a ride share or cab service,” and needed EMS assistance.

When the Avalanche returned for preseason camp, Nichushkin told reporters, “I think we should close it. It’s a new season right now. We have to focus on that.”

A first-round pick by the Stars in 2013, Nichushkin spent four seasons with the club that drafted him. He scored 23 goals and 74 points in 223 games and never quite reached the heights that were expected of a first-rounder.

The Avalanche signed him at the start of the 2019-20 season on a one-year deal worth $850,000. Nichushkin worked his way from a bottom-six role to becoming one of the team’s most important players. It led to him signing a two-year deal worth $2.5 million annually in 2020 before he signed an eight-year deal worth $6.125 million per year that started at the beginning of the 2022-23 season.

“I have two thoughts: Yeah, it sucks for our team … but we got to go play way better than we did today,” Bednar said. “There’s still 20-plus guys in that room that care and that want to win, and that’s what we have to focus on.

“And the second one is I’ve gotten to know Val as a person. … I want what’s best for him. I want him to be happy and I want him to be content in his life whether that’s with our team or not with our team. I want the best for him and his family.”

First appeared on www.espn.com

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