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Colorado Avalanche are trying to move forward after losing Valeri Nichushkin to a six-month suspension

DENVER (AP) — The nameplate above the locker for Valeri Nichushkin has already been removed at the Colorado Avalanche practice facility.

It could be for now – or possibly forever.

For the second year in a row, the Avalanche are on the brink of playoff elimination with Nichushkin, one of their top players, unavailable due to off-ice circumstances.

This could be the final straw for the Avs when it comes to the talented 29-year-old Russian forward.

Nichushkin was suspended without pay Monday night for at least six months and placed in Phase 3 of the league’s player assistance program. The National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Players’ Association announced the news about an hour before the Avalanche’s 5-1 loss to the Dallas Stars left them 3-1 in the second round.

Coach Jared Bednar declined to blame the loss on the absence of the team’s leading playoff scorer. After all, Colorado had been without Nichushkin earlier this season when he received care; Colorado had supported his return, but Phase 3 means he violated the terms of the program, which provides help for everything from mental health to substance abuse.

Nichushkin will miss at least the rest of the postseason and the first month of next season.

Teammates heard about his suspension at various times throughout the day. They were out of rhythm early in Game 4, being outscored 16-2 in the first period and never could get on track. They need to win in Dallas on Wednesday to avoid elimination in the best-of-seven series.

“It’s obviously tough for him, his family,” Colorado star Nathan MacKinnon said Tuesday after an optional workout, adding that he got the Nichushkin news from president Joe Sakic and general manager Chris MacFarland. “That’s all I’m going to say about that.”

Details about Nichushkin’s fight have not been disclosed. In a first-round playoff series against Seattle last spring, Nichushkin abruptly left the team and missed the final five games of the postseason as the Avalanche lost the series 4-3.

In this postseason run, Nichushkin has made valuable contributions with a team-leading nine playoff goals. He is under contract through the 2029-30 season after signing an eight-year, $49 million contract with the Avalanche in 2022.

There’s no telling exactly when – or if – Nichushkin will return. If he returns, how can he regain the trust of his teammates after they have already given him another chance?

“Val is clearly struggling with something,” Bednar said. “Yes, it sucks for our team. We need to turn the page.

“I want him to be happy and I want him to be satisfied in his life, whether it’s with our team or not,” Bednar added. “We hope he can find some peace and get help.”

The team is also in its title-winning season, behind a core group that includes 28-year-old MacKinnon; Cale Makar, 25; and Mikko Rantanen, 27. They are also hoping for the return of Gabriel Landeskog, their 31-year-old captain who underwent cartilage replacement surgery on his right knee last May and will miss a second straight season.

The pressing concern for Colorado is finding a way to regroup and avoid another premature exit.

“This is a tough job, this is our job and we’re giving it everything we’ve got,” forward Andrew Cogliano said. “So I think we focus on the guys in the room. We have a lot of good people here trying to make a difference, and at the end of the day, that’s what it is for us.”

The Avalanche also found out just before Game 4 that they would be without top defenseman Devon Toews due to an illness, another blow to a team that won the 2022 Stanley Cup championship.

“No one feels sorry for us,” Cogliano said.

Nichushkin was unavailable to receive care from the program for nearly two months earlier this season, from January 13 to March 7, for issues that had not been disclosed.

Last spring in the playoffs, Nichushkin’s absence began after officers responded to a crisis call at a Seattle hotel before Game 3. A 28-year-old woman was in an ambulance when officers arrived, and medics were told they were with a Avalanche team doctor had to speak. to gather more details.

The report, obtained from Seattle police at the time by The Associated Press, said the Avalanche doctor told officers that team officials found the woman when they checked on Nichushkin. The doctor told the officers that the woman appeared to be heavily intoxicated and requested ambulance help.

Colorado’s season ended with a 2-1 home loss to the Kraken in Game 7.

It could very well end Wednesday in Dallas.

“Obviously we want Val in the lineup and we want (Toews) in the lineup,” MacKinnon said. “But I still feel like we’re good enough to win it all.”

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AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.

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AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/nhl

Pat Graham, The Associated Press

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