CEDAR PARK — Before stepping in front of a Texas Stars back drop for post-game interviews, Valeri Nichushkin half-joked with members of the media after a 4-3 loss to the Grand Rapids Griffins.
“I don’t speak English, so only easy questions,” the 20-year-old Russian said. “Like, ‘How are you?'”
So, Val, how are you?
“Very good, not bad,” Nichushkin said. “I feel good after game-to-game. I think it’s good.”
Two games into his three-game conditioning stint with the Texas Stars, Nichushkin hasn’t found the scoresheet yet. But his confidence has been growing with each period.
He said he entered the first period feeling “90 percent” Saturday, but was feeling “100 percent” by the third period, when he was moved to the top line and top power play unit as the Stars chased a game-tying goal.
“When I’m warm, like the third period, the leg feels good,” Nichushkin said. “I think I will be better for next game. Play better.”
Nichushkin will also start the next game — Wednesday against the Adirondack Flames — with more responsibility.
Texas Stars coach Derek Laxdal said the 2013 first-round pick would be on the top line from the start of the game. A role he was transitioned to from the third line in each game against Grand Rapids.
Nichushkin doesn’t look like a player who missed five months with hip surgery, not in the AHL at least.
He’s naturally bigger and stronger than most players, and he used that size to his advantage when protecting the puck in the offensive zone. He also came close to scoring a handful of times — and probably would have if not for a superhuman effort this weekend from Grand Rapids’ goalie Tom McCollum.
There were also some mistakes, two of which immediately led to goals against Texas this weekend.
On Friday he turned the puck over twice on one shift in the third period, the second turnover ended up in the back of Texas’ net. On that shift center Travis Morin could be heard yelling from the press box, “Val! Val!,” trying to get the big Russian to pass the puck.
On Saturday he was outmuscled by Louis-Marc Aubry — another large human at 6-foot-4 — near Jack Campbell’s right post and didn’t position himself to clear a rebound. While his linemates at the time — Devin Shore and Branden Troock — had put their bodies on the line to block or clear shots.
Fortunately, Dallas won’t be asking Nichushkin to kill penalties or take key defensive zone starts when he returns to the NHL later this week.
It’s unlikely that Nichushkin will figure out defensive responsibility before squaring off with Adirondack on Wednesday. But the Russian didn’t take the loss lightly, and he — probably unknowing — dug into Mark Messier’s bag of tricks before his AHL finale.
“I don’t like we lose today,” Nichushkin said. “Next game we win for sure.”