NEW YORK -- Matt Cullen was in the right place at the right time for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the third period in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference First Round at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. He capitalized on a fortuitous bounce and scored the game-winning goal at 4:16 of the period to give the Penguins a 3-1 win against the New York Rangers.
The goal was a microcosm of how Cullen, 39, has contributed to Pittsburgh's success all season. A veteran of 18 NHL seasons and playing for his eighth NHL team, Cullen was an unheralded acquisition last summer when the Penguins singed him to a one-year, $800,000 contract. The signing was a move that gave Pittsburgh depth at center behind Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Nick Bonino, but one that's paid off better than anyone could have imagined.
Cullen scored 16 goals during the regular season, his most since 2009-10, and had nine goals and 16 points in 24 games Malkin missed because of an upper-body injury. None were bigger than his goal in Game 3 that helped Pittsburgh take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 series with Game 4 in New York on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; CNBC, TVA Sports, SN, ROOT, MSG).
After Rangers defenseman Dan Boyle lost the puck and collided with teammate Keith Yandle at the blue line. Cullen retrieved it and broke in alone to beat Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist between the legs.
"It never gets old," Cullen said. "I haven't scored many either, so I'll take it. There's no feeling like it."
Video: PIT@NYR, Gm3: Cullen gives Penguins their first lead
Thanks in part to Cullen, the Penguins became a better team down the stretch, finishing the season 13-2-0 and winning eight straight before losing their regular-season finale, a game they rested Crosby and defenseman Kris Letang. He's contributed all over the lineup, seeing minutes at third-line center in Malkin's absence and even time with Malkin on the second line.
When Malkin returned in Game 2, Cullen was back on the fourth line. Playing between Tom Kuhnhackl and Bryan Rust in Game 3, Cullen was a plus-2 in 14:01 of ice time. He's not only delivered in the clutch, he's contributed off the ice with intangibles that go beyond the numbers.
"Cullen has been such an invaluable part of this team not only with his play but just his presence in the locker room, on the bench," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "He's been through a lot hockey in this League. He's won a Stanley Cup [with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006]. He knows what it takes. He has great perspective he can bring to our group and he's done it since I've been here.
"When he chips in with a big goal, like tonight, and he's done that on a number of occasions down the stretch here, it certainly makes our team that much better. I probably have more admiration for what he brings to the locker room. He's just that good of a person."
Someday, Cullen will reflect on his contributions in Pittsburgh, but that time is not now. On the immediate agenda is enjoying what could be his final postseason run.
"I will after the season is over," Cullen said. "But right now it's been a lot of fun. I've absolutely loved the season and I've enjoyed it here in Pittsburgh, and been able to find a good spot where I fit in pretty well on the ice. You don't get many kicks at the can at my age, so I'm trying to make the very most of it. My body feels good and as an older guy that's all you can really hope for is that."