Finally, the monkey is off his back.
After 13 games, 15 shots and several close calls, Valeri Nichushkin scored his first NHL goal.
It has been a season of ups and downs so far for the young Russian, but his frustration has been consistent. Every time he touched the puck, Nichushkin’s determination to produce was evident. He skated a little faster when the puck was on his stick. He attempted to move through multiple defenders and charge the net for a shot. His will to score was met with empty results and irritation.
He registered a shot on goal in his first NHL game, but failed to add any more over the next three. He sulked, banged his stick on the bench and looked to the heavens, but he kept at it. Nichushkin was a healthy scratch for the fifth game of the season, but that seemed to be exactly what he needed.
Nichushkin Bounces Back
Coach Lindy Ruff’s decision to scratch Nichushkin, gave the 18-year-old a chance to step back, take a breath and reignite his game. He returned to the lineup with stronger play overall.
He did not over-pursue the puck in the offensive zone as much. He positioned himself better defensively. He used his big 6-foot-4 205-pound frame better by shielding the puck or landing a timely body check. Instead of attempting to dangle through the opposition, he looked for passes to create better scoring chances. As a result, he looked better each game he played, and his chances seemed to increase. He registered two assists, 11 shots and 12 hits and averaged 14:01 minutes of play over the following eight games.
The Stars then kicked off a three-game road trip with a visit to the Ottawa Senators on November 3. Dallas outshot Ottawa 19-9 and dominated the first period, but only led 1-0. They needed to continue their strong play in the second period for any chance at the much-needed two points. And then it happened:
His goal showcased his quick, accurate shot. In the first period, he demonstrated his speed by taking a puck from inside the Dallas zone up the middle of the ice through two defenders only to be stifled by Craig Anderson. In overtime, he made a slick move to collect the puck and get around a defender but lost his balance as he attempted a backhand shot on goal. This was the Nichushkin the Stars wanted (and needed) to see.
Nichushkin has been on a bit of a roller coaster throughout the lineup so far this season. He was moved from right wing to left wing and back. He began the season on the third line and has spent most of his time there, but he’s played on the other three as well. Even when he was on the third line his linemates were repeatedly swapped.
Finally, being put as right wing on a line with Jamie Benn and Cody Eakin did the trick. Benn’s strength on the puck and creativity with it balanced Eakin’s puck pursuit and speed, giving Nichushkin some open ice and good chances against the Senators.
However, Nichushkin may not be sticking with that line long as Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News reported that Nichushkin was playing left wing on the top line with Benn and Tyler Seguin during practice Monday morning.
Stars lines at practice in Boston: Benn-Seguin-Nichushkin, Whitney-Eakin-Chiasson, Peverley-Horcoff-Cole, Roussel-Fiddler-Garbutt.
— Mike Heika (@MikeHeika) November 4, 2013
Now that Nichushkin is finally rid of the pressure of scoring his first NHL goal, what can we expect from him as the season continues?
There is still growth and progress to be made in his game at both ends of the ice, but Nichushkin is poised to take a step toward the production expected of him before the season started. It may not be fair to expect him to quickly jump into Calder conversations, but with his newfound confidence (and possibly lining up in the top six), Nichushkin is set to put a more sizable mark on the season and show everyone why he was such a steal as the 10th overall pick in the 2013 draft.