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Cullen didn't hesitate to return to Pittsburgh

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

On April 20, the Minnesota Wild's season came to an end with a 5-0 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. It was a disappointing finish to the season for the organization, and for native son Matt Cullen.

The 41-year-old center signed with his hometown club last summer, expecting to end his 20-plus NHL career close to his roots.

But with an early playoff exit, Cullen had time to consider his future. He still had the passion to play. And his 41-year-old body still had the strength and stamina to play.

And there was only one sweater Cullen hoped to wear for the upcoming season: the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team he won back-to-back Stanley Cup championships with in 2016 and '17.

However, that dream seemed to crash four days ago after the Pens re-signed center Riley Sheahan - giving the club four centers in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Derick Brassard and Sheahan.

But to Cullen's surprise, the following morning he received a phone call from Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford.

"I wasn't really expecting anything after I saw (Sheahan sign)," Cullen told the media Sunday afternoon. "Jim called me the next morning and talked to me about the idea of coming back. I'm glad it worked out.

"I'm really excited to be coming back. It's a cool opportunity at my age to come back and have another chance at making a run with this team."

With five center icemen on the roster, someone will have to move to a wing position in order for them all to be in the lineup. A position switch is a challenge that Cullen is embracing.

"I've played quite a bit of wing over the years," he said. "That's something I enjoy is moving around the lineup and filling different spots as the season goes along. I relish the challenge.

"I really enjoy being used in all kinds of different situations that allow me to use the skillset that I have and the experience I've gained through my career. As a player that's what you want, to be challenged and pushed to your limit."

Cullen, who will turn 42 on Nov. 2, said he's continued training through the off-season and feels "really good and like I can be a contributor." Cullen was well known for being a stickler when it came to training and nutrition - which is arguably the biggest reason he is still playing into his fourth decade of life.

"There is still a lot of competitiveness in me, and a part of me that wants to prove that I can still play and be a difference maker," he said.

Cullen was a pivotal fourth-line center, penalty killer and veteran presence on Pittsburgh's two championship clubs.

The Pens wanted to re-sign Cullen last summer, but he opted to return home to Minnesota and ride off into the sunset. But a lot has changed in the previous year.

"When I made the decision last year I totally expect to finish at home then settle down and be home," Cullen said. "The season didn't go the way that I hoped on a number of levels. (My family) knows what a special situation we have in Pittsburgh and what a good fit it is in terms of hockey and also from a family standpoint.

"If you look at it philosophically, you only live one time. If you get an opportunity like this at age 41 with three boys that love the game of hockey and love what we had in Pittsburgh, my wife being supportive and competitive, we just looked at it again as an opportunity that was too good to pass up."

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