It was hard to believe Nail Yakupov had just come off the ice after being named the first star of the game following his two-point performance drove the Colorado Avalanche to a 6-3 victory over the Boston Bruins in their home opener. Before speaking, he took a long swig from the protein concoction the training staff provides all players after the game. He noticed my smirk and matched it with one of his own.
“It’s actually pretty good,” Yakupov said with his trademark smile, remaining as cool as can be.
The 24-year-old winger registered his third goal of the season on a one-timer from Nathan MacKinnon just 60 seconds into the second period to give the Avalanche a 2-1 lead. His assist on Matt Duchene’s goal later in the period ultimately pushed Colorado ahead 4-1 and that goal ended up being the game-winning tally, giving Yakupov five points in the first four games of his Avalanche career.
“As a team, we play really good,” Yakupov explained of his early success. “Every period we work very hard and every line creates some chances and it gets everyone going. We’re really excited about the game right now. Maybe, in the end, a little too excited when we got two penalties but I mean everything has worked well, players together. We play the game and we’re hungry for two points.”
For a player who scored four goals all of last season as a member of the St. Louis Blues, his three-goal outburst in the first week of the season has catapulted him into one of the more intriguing storylines of the NHL season.
“It’s hard to say,” Yakupov stated after a lengthy pause. “It’s just the start of the year. I’ve been working hard in the summer and I have a fresh start right now. A new opportunity, new teammates, and everything works well right now. I just have to stick with that.”
His new teammates and new opportunity have taken him from fourth line duty under the offensively oppressive systems run by Ken Hitchcock and Mike Yeo in St. Louis to playing alongside Matt Duchene and rookie Alexander Kerfoot. With each guy looking to make his mark, it has become Colorado’s “Prove It Line”. Through four games, they’re proving to be the offensive engine behind the team’s surprising 3-1-0 start.
“I like it,” Yakupov admitted. “As a line, we join the play a little bit and we’re always talking. Dutchy, Dutchy is a good player. He’s been here in the league for a while and we’ve already done some movements. We just have to use each other, trust each other and create some chances. I think it works well right now.”
Playing for the first time in front of his new home crowd, Yakupov fed off the fervor of a fan base desperate for a reason to begin believing in their beleaguered hockey team.
“Our fans is our next guy on the ice,” Yakupov said. “When the crowd is going, they give you support and it gives you energy. You’re really excited to play, you sit there on the bench waiting for your shift and the crowd is going and I think it’s really special and a great feeling. We just want our fans to keep going no matter what.”
Avalanche fans are hoping tonight’s offensive explosion from its home team and shifty new winger is just the beginning of something special in Denver. The mutual need for redemption from the team and the player has created the beginning the of a fascinating relationship.