NASHVILLE – If Matt Cullen played his last NHL game Sunday night, the proud Minnesotan went out in a blaze of glory.
Not only was the 40-year-old exceptional on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 4-for-4 penalty kill, including a third-period 5-on-3 in a scoreless game, he played a huge part in Patric Hornqvist’s winning goal in the waning seconds to win his third Stanley Cup championship.
“It’s a pretty good chance this will be my last one,” said Cullen, whose 1,489 games over 19 seasons are the second most behind Phil Housley among Minnesota-born players in NHL history. “I can’t imagine a better way to go out than this. I’ll take a little time here, but yeah, it’s pretty likely.”
After a game in which he played 19 minutes, 42 seconds — his most since Oct. 18 — it was difficult for Cullen to take off his skates and sweater for maybe the final time. As Penguins fans that stuck around to watch the celebration chanted “One More Year,” Cullen embraced his crying wife, three boys, parents and three siblings.
“I love the game,” Cullen said, his eyes welling. “I thank God every day for the opportunity to play in this league for so long. It’s a blessing. I just consider myself really blessed to be here. I just can’t believe that it worked out this way. I’m so appreciative. It’s just a humbling experience to be honest with you.”
Terry Cullen, Matt’s coach at Moorhead High School before Matt was a standout at St. Cloud State and a 1996 second-round draft pick by Anaheim, said: “I thought he had a heck of a hockey game from start to finish. He usually starts in our end of the rink, and he battled all night long and worked hard. I thought he had an exceptional game. Penalty kill was huge, big faceoff wins on that.”
As Terry stared at his son, he said: “I could not be prouder and happier. If this is it — I don’t know if it is, what a way to go. Oh man. That was a strong, strong performance. He’s always loved the big games. He enjoys it. He sure rose to the occasion tonight.”
Cullen had 14 family members at the game. Said Matt’s wife, Bridget, his partner since they were 17 years old, as she fought through tears: “I don’t even have words right now. Just really thankful.”
Penguins General Manager Jim Rutherford, who managed Carolina when Cullen won a Stanley Cup there in 2006, didn’t want to think about him retiring.
“I want him to have some time to talk to his family,” said Rutherford, who acquired Cullen twice with the Hurricanes, signed him two years ago in Pittsburgh and begged him to come back this past season. “If this was his last game, it wouldn’t surprise me and if he said he’s coming to camp and playing next year it wouldn’t surprise me.
“It’s amazing what he did all year, but especially when [Nick] Bonino went down [because of a broken ankle]. He played extra minutes. Man, he’s a special player.”
This year’s Penguins team will be the last on the bottom ring of the Stanley Cup. That means to make room for the next ring, the ring encompassing the 1953-44 through 1964-65 teams — 342 names — will be removed and put in the Hall of Fame. That means names such as Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard and Bobby Hull no longer will be engraved on the Cup.
Cullen, though, will have his name on there a third time.
“Awesome,” he said. “That’s the right word, really. You’re just in awe that your name’s on there with all those other greats of the game. It’s probably something that you don’t appreciate until you’re all done and you’re sitting around the campfire with the kids and telling them stories.”