Jason Zucker was 5 years old when Matt Cullen made his NHL debut. Now they’re linemates, the Wild’s resident graybeard and the young gun.
Cullen is 36, Zucker 21. That’s a fairly wide age gap, one that nearly makes Cullen old enough to be Zucker’s father.
“He’s almost old enough — almost,” Zucker said. “The old goat.”
He meant that as a compliment. Zucker knows as well as anyone the importance of Cullen’s presence in the Wild lineup as a veteran second-line center going against a fast and skilled Chicago Blackhawks team in this playoff series.
Cullen carried a team-high three points into Tuesday’s pivotal Game 4 at Xcel Energy Center. He’s also a regular on the power play and penalty kill and serves as setup man for speedy wingers Zucker and Devin Setoguchi. That line has been the Wild’s most productive offensively in the series, with Cullen acting as the catalyst.
Cullen’s best moment came in overtime of Game 3 when he found himself lying in the prone position. Not by choice or design, the situation called for some improvisation. Sliding on his stomach behind the goal after being tripped, Cullen managed to get enough of his stick on the puck to slip a pass to Zucker, who buried a bad-angle shot for the winner in a 3-2 victory.
“Just one of those weird plays that happens every once in a while,” Cullen said.
The fact that it came in a make-or-break playoff game, in overtime, magnified the significance of Cullen’s ability to turn a potentially busted play into pure gold.
“Some of the passes that guy makes are ridiculous,” Zucker said. “I don’t know how he makes half of them.”
“It was more reaction than anything,” he said.
Despite his outward calm and veteran perspective, Cullen doesn’t hide how much he loves this time of year. He’s won one Stanley Cup and appeared in six playoffs in his 15-year career. At his age, he realizes he might not get too many more opportunities to experience a postseason. So he wants to savor it and embrace it and do everything in his power to make it last as long as possible.
“That excitement, there’s nothing like it,” he said. “You get into the playoffs and you get those feelings that you haven’t had since the last time you were in the playoffs.”
Cullen’s contract expires after the season so his future with the Wild remains in question. The two sides would need to find common ground on term and price in a new deal, but Cullen likes the direction the organization is going.
“We’ve got a great group,” he said. “I give management credit. They’ve done a really good job of changing the culture here. We have a really good group of guys and character people. We’ve had a lot of fun this year.”
The Wild could do worse than bringing Cullen back for at least one more season. He doesn’t look like a guy who has experienced a discernible decline in speed or skill. His slow start this season had more to do with him being asked to play on the wing while rookie Mikael Granlund received on-the-job training at center. Once that experiment failed, Cullen shifted back to his natural position and the Wild’s secondary scoring emerged.
Cullen led the Wild with a plus-9 rating and finished tied for fifth in points with 27, despite missing six games because of a lower body injury. The Wild floundered in his absence in early April, particularly Setoguchi. The Wild won only one game without Cullen in the lineup, and Setoguchi managed just one point in those six games.
“It’s not easy to replace a guy like that,” coach Mike Yeo said, listing all of Cullen’s on-ice responsibilities. “And the offense that he’s bringing on top of that. It’s no coincidence that when he’s in the lineup, when his game is at its best, our team seems to be at its best, too.”
Cullen’s game still revolves around speed, which he finds ironic because that was the primary knock on him entering the 1996 draft.
“I was a slower guy in high school and college,” he said. “They talked a lot about that, that I need to work on my skating.”
Cullen continues to make that a priority every offseason because he doesn’t want his game to slip. He’s having too much fun flicking passes from his stomach to a teammate 15 years his junior.
“It’s fun to see the enthusiasm and the energy,” Cullen said. “It’s really fun to be a part of that.”
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org