Matt Cullen #7 of the Pittsburgh Penguins moves the puck up ice in front of Roman Polak #46 of the San Jose Sharks during Game Four of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center on June 6, 2016 in San Jose, California.
SAN JOSE, Calif. — When Matt Cullen won the Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, he thought there could be nothing better.
“It was the fulfillment of a dream,” Cullen said. “I've dreamed of it my whole life, and to actually see it happen, it was pretty surreal.”
Now he's on the verge of something potentially more incredible.
With one more Penguins victory, perhaps as soon as Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday night atConsol Energy Center, Cullen will able to celebrate a championship with not only his wife but also his three sons, ages 6, 7 and 9.
“To be able to share that with my boys at an age where they're old enough to remember it and they know what's going on, you think you could never add more to a Stanley Cup, but it adds a lot more to it,” Cullen said. “It makes it so much more special for me.”
Cullen said he doesn't have the wherewithal to teach his sons a trade like some fathers might, but he can take them to the rink, just like his dad, a high school coach, did with him when he was growing up in Virginia, Minn.
Cullen's sons are his biggest fans, but sometimes they can be a tough crowd.
“I've got a lot of critique coming when I get home every time when I miss a shot or whatever, but it's cool,” Cullen said. “They watch ‘NHL on the Fly' every morning, and they're giving me tips on where to shoot.”
If Cullen's sons are being fair, there aren't too many nits to pick with their father's game.
At age 39, Cullen has been a rock in the Penguins lineup all season, appearing in all 82 regular-season games and all 22 games in the playoffs.
Skating between left wing Tom Kuhnhackl and right wing Eric Fehr, Cullen has centered a largely effective fourth line for most of the postseason.
More importantly, he's been a special teams stalwart, anchoring a penalty-killing unit that has held the ballyhooed San Jose Sharks power play to one goal on eight chances in the Final.
On top of that, he's been perhaps coach Mike Sullivan's most trusted faceoff man, getting the call to take defensive-zone draws in close games even when it's not his line's regular turn to take the ice.
Cullen's on-ice contributions might not be what general manager Jim Rutherford likes most about him, though.
“He was a key player to put in that room to add some character,” Rutherford said.
Cullen is a veteran voice of reason that his younger teammates, especially those called up from the minors during the season, can turn to for advice.
Cullen said they sometimes talk about the mental side of the game, which can become even more critical than the physical side as a grueling postseason draws to a close.
For example, as a player who has been there, Cullen offered cautionary words to his less-experienced teammates.
“We haven't done anything yet,” Cullen said. “It's easy to get too far ahead of yourself. It's easy to pat yourself on the back, but we haven't done anything but give ourselves an opportunity. We worked hard, but that's all it is. Unless you come out and take advantage of it (in Game 5), it doesn't matter.”
If the Penguins accomplish their goal, Cullen could be in a position few pro athletes ever enjoy.
Cullen said he and his wife decided midway through this season to consciously not talk about the idea of retirement. They would enjoy the ride, Cullen said, and take stock of the situation after the season.
But doesn't Cullen dream of lifting the Stanley Cup one more time and riding off into the sunset a champion?
Well, yes and no.
“I dream of lifting it again, I'll tell you that,” Cullen said. “It kind of ends there. I haven't gotten any further.”