When Matt Cullen signed a one-year deal with Pittsburgh last summer, he said he thought of the opportunity as a gift. And with the way it’s worked out both for him and the team, both sides couldn’t have asked for a better present.
“I love Pittsburgh; I love the group here,” he said. “Everything has gone better probably than I could have hoped, and it’s funny looking back to where we were back then to here.”
All Cullen wanted when he decided to sign with the Pens was a chance to be in this position – preparing for Game 1 of the playoff’s opening round.
“I think as you get older and you play for a while, you understand that probably the biggest and most important thing isn’t numbers and stats, it’s about whether or not you could win a Stanley Cup or two,” Cullen said. “For me, coming back to play this year, that was the whole goal – trying to win a Stanley Cup.”
Cullen won in 2006 with Carolina under current Pens general manager Jim Rutherford. And Cullen feels this is the best opportunity he could have to lift that Cup above his head one more time.
“We’re playing some really good hockey,” he said. “It’s been a great stretch of hockey for us at the end here. To go into the playoffs feeling the way we are is exciting. So for me, as an older guy, being here, this is all you could ask for.”
However, the numbers and stats have been there as well.
The versatile forward played all 82 games for just the second time in his career and finished with 16 goals, his highest total since the 2008-09 season with Carolina. That’s an impressive enough number in itself, but factor in that they all came at even-strength and shorthanded, and it’s even more terrific.
Cullen was a key member of Pittsburgh’s fifth-ranked penalty kill, leading all Pens with an average of 2:32 shorthanded minutes per game. He also took the second-most faceoffs on the team behind Sidney Crosby – with a big chunk of them coming in the defensive zone – and finished with a team-leading win percentage of 55.7.
Cullen was able to slot in up and down the lineup, whether it was playing center or wing in the bottom-6 or moving up into the top-6 when Evgeni Malkin was injured. Most recently, he’s thrived on a line alongside Eric Fehr and rookie Tom Kuhnhackl.
“There’s probably a lot of things that go into it,” Cullen said of sustaining such a high level of play at this point in his career. “I know that I’m lucky to have been given those opportunities and I’ve played with some good players in some of those spots, and with the injuries that we’ve had I’ve been called upon to play a little bit more and do some other roles.
“It’s fun, for me. I’ve really enjoyed that. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of trying new spots, playing on the wing, playing in the middle, moving around. I like all that. We’ve had a lot of players come through that have been really effective players and good players, and so I’ve gotten to play with a lot of them. I’ve just enjoyed it and it’s turned out to be a great year.”
That attitude is what makes Cullen a coach’s dream, according to Mike Sullivan.
“The way I look at Cully, he’s almost an extension of our coaching staff,” the Pens head coach explained. “He’s a great pro. I don’t know how else to say it. He’s a good person, he’s got a great influence on our group.
“He’s still a terrific hockey player. He’s helping us at both ends of the rink. He kills penalties. Regardless of what we asked him to do based on what our lineup looks like, he accepts that role and makes his adjustments. I can’t say enough about him. He’s been a big part of this team’s success here since I’ve been here.”
He’s not just someone Sullivan can rely on when it comes to on-ice responsibilities – he’s a player the coach can count on when it comes to being a veteran leader in a locker room that has a number of guys looking to make their postseason debuts.
Cullen has the most experience of anyone on this team. He’s played 1,294 games over 18 NHL seasons – six more than any other player on the roster – and has gone through several deep runs, including that Cup-winning one back in 2006.
He remembers the guys who were there for him and helped him when he was a young kid, providing advice and guidance, and is more than willing to pay forward.
“There’s so many different things that you’re hit with that you never experienced before when you go through a long playoff run,” Cullen said. “I’m definitely aware of that and I’m looking for opportunities to share. Whenever anybody has anything they want to ask me, I’m always there for them.”
Cullen’s career may be near the end. But with how he’s feeling right now, it’s almost like he’s back at the beginning.
“I feel like I’m 20,” he smiled. “I’m excited. I remember being this excited every time and it’s funny – no matter how many playoffs you get to, I think you have the same amount of excitement each time. I think I’m as excited as anybody and can’t wait to get started.”