Disciplined approach leads Penguins’ Matt Cullen to brink of 1,500th NHL game
It would be impossible for Pittsburgh Penguins center Matt Cullen to still be playing at the sport’s highest level past his 42nd birthday without discipline.
Discipline in the kitchen and the gym keeps him in the kind of physical condition that players half his age aspire to. Discipline on the ice helps him play the type of two-way game that makes him a favorite of coaches no matter when his birth certificate was printed.
Cullen will reach a major milestone when he plays in the 1,500th game of his NHL career Tuesday night against the Florida Panthers.
He will celebrate the occasion with discipline.
After a pregame ceremony honoring his accomplishment, he’ll pay attention to the task at hand. The Penguins are locked in a tight playoff race with 17 games to go.
“Right now, the only real focus is on winning games and finding your way into the playoffs,” Cullen said.
Then, for a short time afterwards, he’ll allow himself to revel in the fact that he’s one of only 20 players in league history – and one of only two Americans – to play as many games as he has.
“After the game, you probably take a half-hour and reflect on some of the good times,” Cullen said. “Mostly, you reflect on the people who helped you get here, because it’s hard to play this long without a lot of help.”
Cullen could reflect on the early days of his career, of making his NHL debut with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in a 26-team NHL on Oct. 27, 1997, then recording his first point – an assist on a Teemu Selanne goal – a few years later.
He could reflect on the final chapter of his career, which saw him up his Stanley Cup count to at least three with a three-year stint with the Penguins. He can take solace in the fact that all the teammates in the locker room Tuesday night were at least born when he made his NHL debut (though Marcus Pettersson and Jared McCann had just celebrated their first birthdays).
Taking a moment to reflect is something that Cullen has become good at over the past few seasons.
“The last couple years I have been doing that a little more, but this year especially I’m trying to take time to appreciate things for how great they are,” Cullen said. “You get caught up in a long career and just focus on playing games. You don’t take a minute to appreciate how special it is to be a part of all this.”
At the moment, capping his career in a storybook fashion with a fourth championship ring seems like a longshot, of course. The Penguins are doing all they can to merely qualify for the postseason, let alone look like a contender.
Wisdom gained from 1,500 games in the NHL has Cullen thinking a little bit differently, though.
Struggle, he has learned, often leads to strength.
“It’s never easy,” Cullen said. “We’ve had moments and stretches where we’ve been great and moments when we haven’t been. Of course we all wish we could stretch those good times a little bit longer, but the season’s a challenge. These ups and downs are what helps bring a team together at the end. If we can find a way to maintain and continue to improve on our game right now heading into the playoffs, it’s all for good, ultimately.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .