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X-Factor: Nichushkin set for Star power

Dallas forward may be ready to become force in postseason

by Steve Hunt / Correspondent

FRISCO, Texas -- With Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Patrick Sharp and Jason Spezza playing leading roles, the Dallas Stars' 265 goals were the most in the NHL this season. 

Those four players again will be leaned on heavily to help the No. 1 seed Stars get past the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But another contributor to the potent Dallas attack is third-year forward Valeri Nichushkin. The 21-year-old, who has the talent to become a top scorer in the League, could be an unsung hero in the playoffs.

Nichushkin, a first-round pick (No. 10) in the 2013 NHL Draft, had nine goals and 29 points in 79 games this season, equaling his NHL career-high for games played, set in his rookie season of 2013-14. 

He has played primarily on the second and third lines this season, and coach Lindy Ruff likes the development he has seen in Nichushkin.

Video: NJD@DAL: Nichushkin opens the scoring on pretty move

"He understands the game a lot better now," Ruff said. "I think he's really starting to understand the mentality here of how we play and shift lengths. There's a learning adjustment when it comes to just going out and playing and going out and playing a certain way. There's a certain way we really feel we have to play to be effective, and I think he's really got a handle on it." 

When Nichushkin arrived in the United States from Russia in 2013, he didn't know any English. To help ease his transition, he initially lived with a family in the Dallas area, then got his own place once he felt he was acclimated, including learning some English.

One person who has helped ease Nichushkin's transition to the NHL and to the U.S. is Stan Tugolukov, who coaches the Dallas Stars Elite Hockey Club. Tugolukov played professionally in Russia and has mentored Nichushkin during his time in Dallas, even serving as his translator for much of his rookie season.

Few know Nichushkin better than Tugolukov, who also has been impressed with Nichushkin's continued evolution, both on and off the ice.

Video: DAL@WPG: Nichushkin labels the top corner

"He's just matured," Tugolukov said. "He's getting really serious about his game. He wants to study the game, he wants to pay attention to the tactical stuff like the systems and everything. I think he's on the right path.

"He's probably a young player who set his goals and targets high, and he's trying to reach them, so he's emotional. Those emotions are about getting better and becoming one of those players who will play in this league for years."

In 2014, Nichushkin got his first taste of playoff hockey, when he had one goal and one assist in six games against the Anaheim Ducks, who defeated Dallas in six games in the first round. After being on the losing end of that series, he's not only ready to experience more playoff hockey, but winning in the postseason. 

"Playoffs are playoffs," Nichushkin said. "You can't make mistakes because they're big games." 

No one who has watched Nichushkin play since his rookie season can deny how much his game and poise on the ice continue to evolve.

But Stars captain Jamie Benn, who is good friends with Nichushkin, has also seen him develop in another major way.

Video: DAL@VAN: Nichushkin tallies on amazing effort

"I just think his personality's come out quite a bit," Benn said. "He's been more comfortable around the guys. He's bought into the system that we play and he's taken some big strides and raised his level of play."

Nichushkin wants to help the Stars win, and he thinks they can.

"I like my teammates," Nichushkin said. "We have a very, very good team. They always stay positive. That's good." 

Even though Nichushkin last scored in a 4-2 win against the New Jersey Devils on March 4 at American Airlines Center, going the final 16 games of the regular season without a goal, one of his biggest backers feels fortunes could soon change for the young Russian. 

"The only area that I think he's frustrated is he hasn't been able to put the puck in the back of the net," Ruff said. "If those [high-quality scoring chances] start going in, I think you'll start seeing a young man that has a lot more confidence."

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