PITTSBURGH — Matt Cullen showed a few slick moves Saturday in the Penguins third preseason game. There was the rush he slipped the puck through his skates around a defender and there were a few crafty give-and-go plays with his linemates Patric Hornqvist and Zach Aston-Reese. Cullen scored a wrap-around goal nine minutes into the first period and raced to a loose puck for another goal later in the third period.
Cullen, who will turn 42-years-old in November, has always had speed and a gritty work ethic but Saturday he played like a talented pivot in his mid-twenties.
“It’s fun to get back out there,” he said. “You go through camp, it’s a lot of work. It’s fun to put the jersey back on and get out there with the home ice. It was a fun day.”
Including Cullen, there are three centers competing for the fourth line center gig, and a few more wingers competing for spots on the fourth line, too. In addition to Cullen, free agent acquisition Derek Grant, and re-signed Riley Sheahan are legitimate NHL centers. Grant has now played in a pair of preseasons games and the camp scrimmages, but its nearly impossible for a potential fourth-liner to match Cullen’s level of play.
The man the Penguins call “Dad” has been that good.
“Cully was Cully,” said Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. “I think he likes the way we play. It plays to his strengths.”
While the Penguins style may suit Cullen better than any other situation in his career, just being an aggressive down-lineup scorer isn’t Cullen’s only contribution. Much has been made of his leadership. From Evgeni Malkin, who told reporters that Cullen “gives the young guys confidence” to Penguins management who lauded Cullen as the missing ingredient, Cullen is an important piece of the Penguins puzzle.
“I think he has a comfort level inside the locker room with his teammates. When you win Stanley Cups like he has with some of his teammates, it’s a galvanizing experience,” said Sullivan. “I have to believe those relationships he’s built over time, here with our team, helps him with his confidence level.”
It didn’t hurt when Cullen’s teammates burst into stick taps over his relentless work in battle drills last weekend.
Saturday, Cullen sat with his son in his locker stall. The pair teased and talked with rookie Zach Aston-Reese, fist bumped and laughed before reporters invaded their space to talk about the game. Cullen’s family, he has three boys who are often the life of the party, were the reason he wanted to be closer to home and left the Penguins for Minnesota. But it didn’t work out and Minnesota was a quick Round One Western Conference casualty.
So, Cullen not ready to hang up the skates returned to his hockey home and thus far has proved Thomas Wolfe incorrect. He has come home again, but he’s doing so with a clear mindset and trying to enjoy the little things, even preseason.
Cullen has set the bar high. Perhaps when Riley Sheahan returns from injury, he and not Cullen will be pushed to the wing. Cullen is enjoying himself and it shows in his play.
“The last few years, I’ve been approaching it as if it’s my last season, so I think you just kind of enjoy it more. Where other times in your career, you’re just hoping camp gets over and gets to the regular season,” Cullen said. “I’m trying to enjoy it, every step of the way.”
Here is Matt Cullen’s postgame chat via Pittsburgh Sports Live YouTube page (subscribe if you enjoy the Penguins content):