DENVER — For the second year in a row, the Avalanche will suddenly be without forward Valeri Nichushkin amid a playoff run. And it just might spell the end of their Stanley Cup hopes.

The NHL and NHLPA announced Monday that Nichushkin was placed in Stage 3 of the Player Assistance Program. Per the terms of the program, he is suspended for a minimum of six months before he can apply for reinstatement. Nichushkin, who leads the NHL with nine playoff goals, was on the ice for morning skate and was expected to play.

“I learned about it earlier today, like sometime after pregame skate,” Avs head coach Jared Bednar said. “Obviously not happy about it, but it is what it is. It’s out of our control.”

The suspension was announced an hour before Game 4’s puck drop at Ball Arena. But the team received the news from Bednar when they arrived for the game.

The Avalanche went on to lose 5-1. They trail the Dallas Stars 3-1 in the second-round series and find themselves on the brink of elimination heading back to American Airlines Center for Game 5 on Wednesday.

“It’s weird for us. Unfortunately, we obviously had to deal with stuff like this last year in the playoffs as well,” Superstar defenseman Cale Makar said.

Bednar added: “Well I mean the guys certainly are going to be disappointed.”

Bednar and the team refused to use Nichushkin’s loss as an excuse for their terrible performance in Game 4 — their worst of the series. But it’s hard not to.

Nichushkin’s absence is quite reminiscent of a season ago, as Makar referenced. One of the Avs’ more effective forwards, he suddenly disappeared from the lineup ahead of Game 3 against the Seattle Kraken in the first round. It was later confirmed that an incident at the team hotel with a woman led to Nichushkin being escorted out by team security. He did not play for the rest of the playoffs and the Avs were eliminated in seven games.

Nichushkin was later given the green light to return to the team and enjoyed a career year in 2023-24, amassing a career-high in goals (28) and points (53) despite missing 28 games. he missed two months of the regular season when he entered the Player Assistance Program in January.

“I have made the decision to seek help and enter the Player Assistance Program,” Nichushkin said in a statement four months ago. “My goal is to address my issues and prevent any negative outcomes once and for all. I want to thank my wife and family, my friends, the Avalanche organization and all of our fans for their understanding and support. I will do everything I can to get back on the ice and join my teammates as soon as possible.”

It’s unclear where the team turns from here. Colorado has enjoyed incredible success with Nichushkin in the lineup compared to when he’s unavailable. Several of his teammates often refer to him as the M.V.P. of the 2022 Stanley Cup Final series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

But at some point, the tough questions need to be asked. Last year the organization tried its best to sweep the Seattle incident under the rug. They welcomed the 28-year-old Russian back with open arms with a spot on the top line with stars Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. Nichushkin the hockey player deserves that.

He is two years into a max-term eight-year contract worth $49 million. And according to The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun, this suspension might not be grounds for contract termination.

But the team can’t possibly allow Nichushkin to serve his suspension, attempt to overcome his personal demons and welcome him back without taking his past behavior into account. Right?

As much as the team would like to support one of their own, management must ask themselves if this guy could be trusted as a business asset.

Could the Avs win without him? Perhaps. But losing him hours before a playoff game two years in a row makes it hard to do so. And harder to believe in him as a hockey player.

The team left morning skate expecting a jolt to the top six with the return of Jonathan Drouin. Instead, Nichushkin’s absence overshadowed Drouin’s return and an illness that kept defenseman Devon Toews out of the lineup further elevated Colorado’s adversity.

It took more than six minutes for the Avs to get a shot on goalie Jake Oettinger. And nearly midway through the second period, Colorado was trailing 2-0 and was being outshot 22-4. The Stars scored shorthanded and on a power play. Whatever energy that was left in the building was sucked out of it pretty quickly.

Casey Mittelstadt had the Avs’ only goal and Alexandar Georgiev did an admirable job in net, making 29 saves.

“I felt like we were in a good spot today at morning skate and ready to go,” Bednar said. “Shows you how much I know, I guess, because it wasn’t very good.”

The MacKinnon era will forever be remembered for the memorable 2022 Stanley Cup championship run. But 2024 might always be the year that got away. The series isn’t over yet. And the Avs have the firepower to turn this around and win three straight, as unlikely as it sounds.

Whether or not we’ve seen the last of Nichushkin’s career with the Avs is anybody’s guess. But one thing is for certain: If he’s reinstated, and the team allows him to return, they better be sure this doesn’t happen again.

And that’s if his teammates will ever trust to play with him again.