CRANBERRY, Pa. -- Going out a champion, raising the Stanley Cup and then skating off the ice for the last time as an NHL player has to be a dream for everybody who plays or once played in the League.
But doing it twice in a row, leaving after winning back-to-back Stanley Cup championships and playing an impactful role both years, well, that seems so far-fetched, doesn't it?
"It's something you wouldn't even ever dare dream about, honestly," Pittsburgh Penguins center Matt Cullen said.
But Cullen not only can dream about it, he can do it. He's 40 years old and close to wrapping up his 19th and potentially last NHL season.
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The Penguins need one win to become the first repeat Stanley Cup champion since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997-98. They can get it done in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena on Sunday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports).
Pittsburgh leads the best-of-7 series 3-2.
Although he's not ready to say it yet, Game 6 could be the last Cullen plays in the NHL. He won the Cup with the Penguins last season and with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. He admittedly does think about going out a back-to-back champion and three-time overall champion.
"I guess that's kind of part of the challenge right now this time of year," Cullen said. "It's so important to stay in the moment and focus on what you've got to focus on, but to have that dream sitting out there is pretty exciting."
It has even greater impact on Cullen, a veteran of 1,366 NHL regular-season games and 122 more in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, because he's not some bit part on the Penguins, not some old guy that's hanging on, not some healthy scratch who just wants to be a part of it.
"It definitely means more when you're a big part of it," Cullen said.
Cullen has been the Penguins No. 3 center for the past three games because Nick Bonino has been out with a left foot injury. Cullen has two assists and is fourth among Pittsburgh's forwards in ice time per game in the Stanley Cup Final (16:07). He is ninth among the forwards in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs at 14:05.
Cullen has played in all 24 Penguins playoff games this year after playing in all 24 last year. He played in 72 games this season, missing 10 with an injury. He played in 82 games last season. He has 63 regular-season points (29 goals, 34 assists) and 15 playoff points (six goals, nine assists) in the past two seasons.
"That's one of the things I've been so appreciative of and have enjoyed so much the last two years is being able to play a big role on this team and use what I have to the fullest to help this group," Cullen said. "Obviously we have some superstars here but it's nice to be a role player that does his part. It means a lot."
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Part of Cullen's role also is to be a sounding board for the Penguins' leadership group, including their captain, center Sidney Crosby and their alternates, forwards Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz. He doesn't wear a letter too, but his near two decades in the NHL mean he has a unique perspective to share.
"He's a guy that has so much experience to draw on," coach Mike Sullivan said. "He's had both successes and failures. He's been in the game a long time and I think he shares those experiences with this group."
Sullivan said he and his assistants treat Cullen as an extension of the coaching staff.
"That's how highly we think of him," Sullivan said.
Now, though, Cullen is trying to put into perspective of what is potentially ahead of him, what he can accomplish, the unthinkable dream of skating off the NHL ice for the last time as a back-to-back Stanley Cup champion.
It's kind of mind blowing for him.
"Honestly, after my final season in Nashville [2014-15] I was awfully close to being done and I would have been happy," Cullen said. "I know a lot of great, great players that never even get a chance to play in the Final. I was very happy with the opportunity I had in '06. And then to get the opportunity last year and everything that happened was unbelievable.
"It gives you a real appreciation for how hard it is to get here and what an unbelievable opportunity you have if you get to this point. I went, what, 10 years there without even having a sniff, really. I appreciate it."