Matt Cullen having fun with new role on second line
January 5, 2016 12:00 AM
Matt Cullen battles for a loose puck in front of the Blue Jackets net in the first period of a game last month at the Consol Energy Center.
By Jenn Menendez / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Matt Cullen has spent the majority of this season centering the Penguins fourth line with a rotating cast of wingers.
He signed up for that bottom-six role this summer, agreeing to a deal with the Penguins a few months shy of his 39th birthday, fully expecting the kind of minutes and opportunities that come in a support role.
Those days are currently behind him.
Cullen was elevated to the second line in Detroit with center Evgeni Malkin and right winger Phil Kessel, and will play there tonight for a third game in a row.
In fact, the entire lineup is expected to be unchanged for a third consecutive game as the Penguins open a home-and-home series tonight against the Chicago Blackhawks at Consol Energy Center fresh off two wins.
“Matt’s just a guy that’s a smart player,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “He’s played with offensive guys in his career. I think because he’s responsible in all three zones, and the way he plays, and he still has the ability to think the game on their level. I think he can help that line. And so far it’s been pretty good.”
Sullivan said he likes the fit so far, and the fact that as a center Cullen also can take faceoffs. He said ideally he would like to see what this lineup can do for a spell before considering changes. The Penguins have scored 10 goals in their past two games, and the power play has become dangerous again.
“We wanted to put Phil back with Geno. And we liked the [Sidney Crosby-Chris Kunitz] tandem. And the rest of them were moving parts kind of around it and that’s how it’s been for most of the time since I’ve been here,” Sullivan said. “Just trying to find some sort of consistency, and I’d like to settle into something and give them a chance to play together for a bit. We tried Matt there, we liked what we saw. We still like what we see.”
Cullen joked that his primary job is to stay out of the way of his offensively gifted linemates, and perhaps just do the small things to enhance their games.
“I don’t know how much I’m adding. I’m trying to kind of stay out of their way a little bit, do some of the smaller things and help the line out,” Cullen said. “Those guys are great players. It’s fun to be out with them. You find a way to be effective. It’s quite a different style of play.”
Kessel tells a different story. “He’s a very skilled player out there. He’s played a long time, he understands the game well. He understands where to be. He makes great plays out there. He makes it easy.”
And he still has the wheels to keep up and get himself to the net when need be.
Or as Kessel puts it: “He can move, you know?”
Both players said a consistent lineup is ideal, particularly when things are going well.
“I think you find through the course of the season when you’re able to have a stretch where guys are allowed to play together for a length of time you get a little bit of familiarity,” Cullen said. “That makes a big difference on the ice. It’s small, subtle things. But it makes a big difference in your timing, and knowing where guys are at. The more that you can play together, the better.
“At the same time it’s not a full reality in the NHL.”
Thinking back to the summer, when his future was still up in the air, Cullen admitted he’s found a pretty great landing spot for now. “Yeah, it’s funny. You know there’s so many ups and downs to the season, things change a lot. It’s fun to be here where I am but the biggest thing is that we’re winning games.
“So if this is what it takes to win games, that’s great. If it takes me being on the fourth line, that’s fine, too.”
Jenn Menendez: email@example.com and Twitter @JennMenendez.
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