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Crunch time is Cullen time for Wild veteran

Three-time Stanley Cup champion is getting better as the games get bigger

by Dan Myers @DanMyers /

VANCOUVER -- There's something about the weather getting warmer and the calendar turning to March that seems to bring the best out of Wild forward Matt Cullen.

The 41-year-old centerman was arguably the best player on the ice in Minnesota's 5-2 win against the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena on Friday, scoring one goal, assisting on another.

If not for Canucks goaltender Anders Nilsson, he might have had a lot more than that.

"I thought that might have been Matt Cullen's best game this year," said Wild coach Bruce Boudreau. "He generated all the play."

But Cullen's quality game on Friday didn't come out of nowhere. His play has been building now for weeks. Indeed, there's something about the intensity of the postseason and the chase of a playoff spot that lights a fire inside Cullen, the oldest active player in the NHL.

He freely admits it.

"It's just a different level of excitement," Cullen said. "I think coming to the rink and understanding that every game is so important and you start watching the playoff picture and everything is magnified. For me, that's why I continue to play. It's fun to play the high-stakes games that mean a lot."

There have been whispers about Cullen's future since the end of his first stint with the Wild five years ago. After nearly every season since, many wondered if he had played his final game. 

Video: Bruce Boudreau postgame at Vancouver

When he won his first of two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016, he was certainly riding off into the sunset ... until he came back and won another Cup, playing a team-high in minutes among Penguins forwards in the deciding Game 6 of the Cup Final in Nashville last spring.

Once again, talk of retirement lingered until he signed back on with his hometown Wild last August.

Following a rocky start to his homecoming, Cullen's game has slowly built as the magnitude of the games has increased.

"Here's a guy thats won two Stanley Cups in a row. I don't think the first 10 games of the season is gonna make or break him," Boudreau said. "But now you can tell, he's ramping it up. Hopefully this is a regular thing because he's scoring fairly regular right now."

Tyler Ennis, who assisted on Cullen's goal on Friday, said he's seen a pep in the veteran centerman's skates as the season has worn on. 

Now playing on his line, he's getting a chance to see it up close. 

"I think this is why the Wild signed him," Ennis said. "When he was signed, I think it was really exciting for everybody because you sign a guy who's a great teammate and a guy that's won three Stanley Cups and knows how to win. This is the part of the year where he really ramps it up and it's awesome to be on his line."

That line was something special on Friday. 

Cullen scored Minnesota's second goal, flashing quick hands on a quick move at the top of the goal, giving the Wild a brief 2-1 lead in the second period.

Video: MIN@VAN: Cullen dekes to backhand to beat Nilsson

He was also robbed by Canucks goaltender Anders Nilsson on another play and closed down on a 2-on-1 rush with Ennis late in the first period. The duo was stymied by Nilsson again six minutes into the third period, as the Vancouver netminder kept at least two would-be goals by Cullen off the board with 10-bell saves.

Ennis set up Cullen's beauty of a goal with a saucer pass he squeezed through a pair of Canucks defenders and put right on the tape of Cullen's stick blade. Ennis was also stoned by the post after driving the net and going to his backhand in the dying seconds of the second period.

"I think we've been playing pretty well and we've been getting those chances," Charlie Coyle, their recent linemate, said. "Maybe we haven't buried them as much as we should have, but we really haven't been giving up much either."

Coyle had an assist and scored an empty-net goal with under a minute to play, taking a pass from Cullen, who deferred to the younger player to help him snap out of a 12-game goal drought.

Video: MIN@VAN: Coyle deposits puck into empty net

"It's always good to see that puck go in," Cullen said. "But I think Charlie has been really good ... and it was nice to see him get rewarded. Hopefully it'll get the snowball rolling here."

Coyle is getting a chance to play with Cullen for the second time in his career after also skating with him as a young player first breaking into the League.

Deep into a marathon of a regular season, Cullen is showing him -- and everyone else -- why he's been invaluable to the Penguins the past two seasons.

"When he starts picking it up is come playoff time," Coyle said. "We know what he's done in Pittsburgh the last couple years and was a huge part of that team. He's the same thing here, it's not changing. 

"You can tell he's getting confident and that's huge for our team when he's playing that way. We know he's capable of that."

Video: Locker room postgame at Vancouver


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