Bruised by present, Penguins’ Matt Cullen not thinking about the future
The game had been over for no more than 15 minutes, and the Pittsburgh Penguins locker room was full of players with bruised feelings, unfulfilled expectations and heads hung in despair.
But Matt Cullen still was asked to answer the toughest question of all:
Cullen, who will be 43 early next season, signed a one-year contract with the Penguins to play in his 21st NHL season. That season ended Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena in a 3-1 loss to the New York Islanders that punctuated their four-game sweep. Cullen did not have a point in the four games after getting 20 in the regular season, his lowest total since the 2003-2004 season.
Cullen played 9 minutes, 6 seconds Tuesday, centering the fourth line with Zach Aston-Reese and Garrett Wilson. If this was the last of Cullen’s 1,648 games, including 132 in the postseason and three Stanley Cup championships with the Carolina Hurricanes and Penguins (twice), he went out by putting two shots on goal and losing five of seven faceoffs.
He was on the ice for the second Islanders goal that broke a 1-1 tie in the first period, but the series was mainly lost due to the Penguins scoring three goals over the final three games.
“We had a hard time finding a way to get pucks in the back of the net,” Cullen said. “I guess that was the story of the series.”
When asked if he thought about the possible end of his career, he said, “Not at all.”
“I guess that’s something for another day. (Tuesday) was just focusing on trying to get back in the series. It’s all we talked about, trying to get the one game and try to find a way to get back into the series.
“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get it done.”
He also wouldn’t say if the loss increased his desire to come back.
“Oh, I don’t know. It really hurts a lot for all of us,” he said. “You invest a lot in the season. Going to the playoffs with high hopes, and you weren’t able to get it done.”
The Penguins played well in the latter weeks of the regular season but couldn’t match that level of production in the playoffs. Even while they were never out of any game until the final minutes, they allowed the Islanders too many odd-man rushes and were unable to hold leads or momentum. That’s what hurt Cullen most.
“That’s something we’ve all been searching for, trying to find our very best game,” he said. “That’s the hardest part about this whole thing. I don’t think any of us feel like we brought our best game as a team.
“It’s hard to take. It wasn’t for lack of effort. Guys cared. Guys tried. For whatever reason, we weren’t able to find our best game. It’s a tough one to take, for sure. We have to take some time here.”
Cullen’s three Cups all were won with Jim Rutherford as the general manager, and Rutherford will have difficult decisions to make in an offseason that arrived sooner than anyone expected. The Penguins are 1-2 in playoff series since winning the Stanley Cup in the 2017.
Coach Mike Sullivan can’t say what the summer holds for his roster, but he has talked openly this season about how much enjoyed his players.
“What I will say is that I have so much respect for this group of players. They are great people. They are character guys,” he said. “It’s a privilege to coach this team.”
Cullen feels the same way.
“It’s special coming back here,” said Cullen, who played for Minnesota last season after the Stanley Cup victories in 2016 and ‘17. “This is a very special place for me.
“I really enjoyed being back here this year, had a lot of fun and love this group of guys and love this organization. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .