PITTSBURGH -- With about five minutes remaining in the first period of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Washington Capitals on Tuesday, Pittsburgh Penguins center Matt Cullen made a move toward the net that got fans out of their seats at Consol Energy Center.
Cullen, 39, looked more like a player in his prime when he toe-dragged around a Capitals defenseman before putting a wrist shot on goalie Braden Holtby. It didn't go in, but it left Cullen's teammates in awe.
"Seriously … where did that come from?" Penguins right wing Tom Kuhnhackl said Friday, hours before Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Consol Energy Center (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports). "It's just awesome to have him as a leader in our locker room."
Not only has Cullen been a positive influence for linemates Kuhnhackl and Bryan Rust, who each are 15 years younger than their center, but he's contributing, too. Cullen has three goals and two assists in 11 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Not bad for someone who was without a contract until the first week of August, when he signed for one year with the Penguins.
Now he's eight wins shy of a championship.
"It's awesome, it's all you could ever ask for," Cullen said. "You get to go through it one time in your career, and you want to get back there. But you understand how difficult it is to get back there. I'm really appreciative and I'm really blessed to be here. I'm enjoying every minute of it."
Ten years have passed since Cullen hoisted the Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes, for whom he had 18 points in 25 playoff games. The opportunity to play with veteran stars, such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, as well as rookie goalie Matt Murray, has had Cullen reflecting on that 2005-06 season. In Carolina, he won a championship with forwards Eric Staal and Justin Williams and goalie Cam Ward, who was in the midst of his first NHL season.
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"We had a dynamic team," Cullen said. "We had a lot of guys that could score. We had a lot of depth. You know, we have that here and it's been big. With the young kid [Murray] stepping into the nets and playing, that's pretty familiar too; we had Cam Ward that year. It's fun. It brings back a lot of memories getting to this point. It's a lot of fun to think about it."
A decade later, Cullen may have another opportunity, one much different than the one he had with Carolina, but no less important. His linemates are certainly grateful for the impact Cullen has had on their young careers.
"For me and the rest of the young guys, he's just a great role model and leader because of the way he handles himself on and off the ice," Rust said. "For me and Kuhnhackl being on his line, it's easy for us to maybe get upset with certain plays that we make, but he's always there. He's a calm presence on the bench; he doesn't get too high, he doesn't get too low. He's there to kind of help us with things here and there to help us be a little bit better."
"It's fun to see those young guys, but it's fun to be on the other end of the spectrum now and do your best to try to help those guys out," Cullen said. "You bring a little bit of experience, but it's funny when you get into something like this; it brings out the kid in you too. You find yourself with the same nerves, the same excitement … all that comes back."
Cullen may not be the offensive force he was 10 years ago, but he is excelling in his current role. His presence certainly has been beneficial for Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, who was promoted from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League on Dec. 12 after Mike Johnston was fired.
"I can't say enough for the influence he's had on not just young players, our whole group," Sullivan said. "He's a very well respected guy, he's a great pro, a terrific person. His play, I think, speaks for itself, not just in the regular season, but down the stretch when we were fighting for a playoff spot.
"Matt's been a key part of this team's success in a lot of different aspects, whether it be on the penalty kill, taking defensive zone faceoffs, or coming up with a big goal for us at a key time to help us win. I think he's really enjoying this journey that we've been on. He really values his ability to have an impact on some of the kids that we have in our lineup. He's been playing between two guys that are almost half his age, and I think he's really having fun with them."