It's just a start, Matt Cullen insisted. A good one? Perhaps. An encouraging sign after a discouraging season? So far.
Cullen is happy with the way his season -- and the Wild's -- has begun. He can feel his confidence growing. He likes the line he's on. But let's not get ahead of ourselves here. Cullen won't.
"All it is is a start," he said again. "It's four games. But I feel good. I'm enjoying the guys I'm playing with. And I really do like this system. It's up-tempo."
Through four games, centering the Wild's second line, the 34-year-old Cullen has scored three of the team's nine goals. He had the first goal of the season in a 4-2 opening-day victory over Columbus. He had the team's lone goal against the Islanders and again Thursday, when his second-period goal tied a game that ended with the Wild beating Edmonton 2-1 in a shootout.
This quick start was something Cullen worked all summer for. Perhaps most encouraging is that all three goals have come at even strength. Cullen scored 12 goals last season. Of those, four came short-handed, five on the power play. That means he has as many even-strength goals through four games as he had all of last season.
To Cullen, that points to a line that is clicking, and coach Mike Yeo's system.
First, the line. Cullen is paired with wingers Guilliaume Latendresse and Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Cullen loves the way Latendresse -- who has an assist on all three of Cullen's goals -- controls space and the puck. Cullen said he feels he's a good match with Bouchard, a pass-first winger able to hit him at full speed.
Of course, already the line has had some interruptions. The two-game suspension for Bouchard put Brett Bulmer on the line. Latendresse was given Friday off -- termed a maintenance day by Yeo -- for a sore hip, though he is expected to play.
As for the system? Yeo preaches getting the puck going north in a hurry, with the intention of hitting the offensive zone at full speed. For the quick-skating Cullen, this is ideal.
"I do believe if we're playing our game, then Cully's a guy who should look good," Yeo said.
Numberswise, Cullen started well last season, too. He scored three goals and had nine points in the Wild's first six games. But six of those nine points came on the power play. And Cullen certainly didn't feel good about the way the season ended, either for himself -- zero goals in his last 24 games -- or the team.
The season ended with his confidence at a low ebb.
"I was pleased with the start," he said. "For some reason or another, things went south. It was tough to turn it around. ... Confidence is a fragile thing. No matter how far along you are in your career, you have to battle to maintain your level of confidence and to keep believing in what you do."
Already an excellent off-season worker, Cullen said he trained even harder, focusing on his endurance. His motivation level was sky high after the way 2010-11 ended.
And now? So far, so good. His even-strength production is an indication that he and his line are clicking. With the quick start, his confidence has grown.
"I wasn't real pleased with my season last year," he said. "So I viewed this as an opportunity to rebound and get back to where I wanted to be."