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Cullen readies to welcome former teammates to Minnesota

Wild forward a key part of each of Penguins past two Stanley Cup championship teams

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers /

ST. PAUL -- Earlier this month, Matt Cullen sat in his Detroit hotel room and watched his old teammates from Pittsburgh raise the franchise's fifth Stanley Cup championship banner into the rafters at PPG Paints Arena.

It was the NHL's opening night, and the Penguins were ready to host the St. Louis Blues. About 280 miles northwest, Cullen was at the Wild's team hotel one night before it opened its season against the Detroit Red Wings.

Cullen admitted it was a bit of a surreal experience.

Video: Wild looks toward facing Penguins

"You're filled with pride seeing it go up, obviously being a part of it brings back a lot of memories. It's an odd feeling not being a part of it," Cullen said. "I think more than not you're just happy for what happened and you just kind of relive those experiences."

Luckily for Cullen, he was a part of a similar banner raising one year earlier, when the veteran centerman was back for his second season with the Penguins. He helped lead Pittsburgh to its first of back-to-back Cup championships in his first season with the organization. 

Cullen will play against the Penguins for the first time since leaving during the summer on Saturday when the two-time defending Cup champions open a five-game road trip at Xcel Energy Center.

Now in his 20th season in the NHL, Cullen is back for a second stint with the Wild. He's played for eight franchises during that span, so playing against a former employer isn't a foreign experience to him.

Still, after playing two seasons in Pittsburgh and winning two Stanley Cups, Cullen admitted playing against the Penguins for the first time will be a special night for him.

"I think it will be different on an emotional level. I think there will be a lot more that goes into it as far as, I played [against] a lot of old teams I've played for previously," Cullen said. "But what we went through in Pittsburgh, seeing those guys again after everything that went on the last couple years, it'll be fun.

"On the hockey side of it, it's a challenge, just from an emotional standpoint. It'll be fun to go through it but there are challenges that come with that too."

It will also be a special night for his family. Cullen will receive his Stanley Cup ring in a small gathering, including his family, before the game. His three sons spent a bunch of time inside the Penguins dressing room the past couple of seasons, developing relationships with players there.

Cullen jokingly said he doesn't know which team his kids will be cheering for.

"It will be interesting to see what they're wearing for jerseys but they're excited to come to the game," Cullen said. "They had a pretty good set up in Pittsburgh and were at the rink an awful lot. Those guys are like a lot of uncles to them but it'll be fun, they'll be around."

Before that, Cullen is expected to have a few old teammates over to his house for a meal tonight. 

"When you go through everything the past two years you get pretty close but there's always, you give each other a hard time," Cullen said. "But we keep in pretty close touch."

Niederreiter possible for Saturday?

As Wild forward Nino Niederreiter continues to battle back from a high ankle sprain, coach Bruce Boudreau didn't rule him out for the game Saturday.

Niederreiter practiced with the team for a second consecutive day, a good sign after a vigorous day on the ice Thursday during the team's morning skate. He began skating on his own earlier this week.

Video: Bruce Boudreau prepares for Penguins

"He's getting better. I don't know if tomorrow's the day or if Tuesday's the day because ankle sprains are weird things. I guess it depends on him and his confidence and what [Wild Certified Athletic Trainer] John [Worley] says and what [general manager] Chuck [Fletcher] says," Boudreau said. "We'll be happy to have him back any time he can come back but I just don't know the date that that's gonna happen."

With Cullen and Mikko Koivu not on the ice (maintenance) and Jason Zucker at the hospital tending to the birth of his son, Niederreiter slipped on a green jersey and was able to get plenty of repetitions during Friday's brisk, hour-long session.

"It was good for me to double shift right away and get some momentum going and get a lot of touches and get some shots off," Niederreiter said. "A practice like that, that's what I need." 

Niederreiter said his ankle is feeling good, even after Worley put him through a vigorous skating test after practice.

"It was good. Even right now after the bag skate it still feels good so we'll see how tomorrow goes and go from there," Niederreiter said. "Obviously you know it's there so you're definitely a little cautious of it. At the end of the day, once you get a game in that's when you feel like you're ready or not."

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