PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Penguins center Matt Cullen, despite his inexperience with NHL outdoor games, had a secret weapon when it came to the 2017 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game Saturday at Heinz Field.
So it shouldn't have come as a huge surprise that he scored the winning goal in the Penguins' 4-2 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Cullen spent the Penguins' break from Jan. 1-5 at home in North Dakota. Each day he would take his three sons, Brooks, Wyatt and Joey, to the local park and skate on the frozen pond there.
"I got a little warmup," Cullen said, trying to explain his effectiveness in such difficult conditions despite never having played in an outdoor game as a professional. "We went home for our little bye week there, so I got a little warmup with the cold temperatures outdoors; but that is what makes it so fun. This is what we all grew up doing, how we fell in love with the game. It's just fun to be able to do this on such a huge stage."
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Sure, it was a bit tough to skate at Heinz Field with the wind whipping around, temperatures hovering just above freezing and the occasional snow flurry. But it was nothing compared to the temperatures on that pond in North Dakota, where it was between minus 10 and minus 20 while the Cullens were there.
"We were out almost every day at the park. I love that," he said. "You play professional hockey and you get away from that. … There is nothing better. It's just something different."
Maybe that explains why Cullen couldn't stop smiling Saturday. It started well before the game and it seemed to grow throughout the evening.
"I've got to tell you, I don't know if I have had more fun playing in a game," Cullen said.
When he scored at 1:50 of the third period, slamming home a rebound of his own wrap-around attempt to give the Penguins a 3-1 lead, he wheeled away from the net and broke into a giant smile as he pumped his fists at the crowd.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, Cullen, at 40 years, 115 days old, became the third over-40 player to score a goal in an NHL outdoor game. Mark Recchi (41 years, 334 days) of the Boston Bruins was the oldest, against Philadelphia in the 2010 Winter Classic at Fenway Park. Daniel Alfredsson (41 years, 21 days) of the Detroit Red Wings was the other, against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2014 Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium.
After the game, Cullen was still smiling in the dressing room, maybe more than at any other time since preparations for this game started on Friday, with a practice and a family skate that featured Cullen's three sons zipping all over the ice.
"When you come here, it's kind of hard not to have a smile on your face; it's a once-in-a-lifetime-type deal," Cullen said. "It's a bucket-list thing; something I always wanted to do. It was more than I expected and I found myself more excited than I expected throughout the day. I just really enjoyed it."
Cullen is painfully aware that he is likely nearing the end of his playing days. He wasn't sure he was going to play this season until he re-signed with Pittsburgh on a one-year contract on Aug. 17.
At this point in a player's career, there is a tendency to appreciate the indelible moments a little more. Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan believes that is one of the things that allows Cullen to remain productive after turning 40.
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The goal was Cullen's 10th of the season and put him in double digits for the 15th time in his 19 NHL seasons.
"I don't think Cully takes anything for granted," Sullivan said. "I think he really appreciates being part of this team and everything that this team has been able to accomplish over the last couple of years, and he knows that most of his hockey is behind him.
"You know, every opportunity like this, I think he cherishes those moments."
He certainly savored the fact that his sons were part of a group of children that skated on a small auxiliary rink behind the player benches before the game and during intermissions Saturday.
"I am sure I will get all their stats after and they will be like, 'Yeah, way to go, one goal; I had six.' I know I will get that," Cullen said with a laugh. "That was pretty cool, though. It was pretty fun to see them playing back there."