Ben Lovejoy said this about his teammate after Game Four of the Washington series: “He is maybe the most dangerous player in the league coming in on a 2-on-1 with the puck on his stick.”
After the Game Two win against the Lightning, Eric Fehr offered something similar: “If there is a guy you want with a 2-on-1 it’s him.”
So who are they talking about…Sidney Crosby? Evgeni Malkin? A member of the now famed H-B-K line?
No. It’s Matt Cullen.
Yup. That Matt Cullen. The 39 year old 4th line center who signed a one year throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-if-he-sticks deal on August 6th. The guy who was insurance for Eric Fehr’s elbow surgery. For Sergei Plotnikov’s inability to adjust to the NHL. For Daniel Sprong’s eventual removal from the roster. For any other assumed injuries the always injury plagued Penguins would endure.
All of which became necessary.
And there was Cullen answering the call. Playing in all 82 games. Tallying 16 goals and 16 assists (4G/2A in post season). Winning 55% of his faceoffs.
Too bad he can’t play wing on Malkin’s line and solve…hey wait a minute!
Before he became the recently proclaimed best fourth line center in the history of hockey, wasn’t Cullen brought here for his versatility? Wasn’t Cullen brought here to play LW/C/RW, rotate back on “D” for a sixth man if needed, emergency goalie, and sell popcorn at intermission?
Why isn’t elevating Cullen to a wing on Malkin’s line being considered at all? Just about every other combination has been attempted. If leaving the H-B-K line alone is a given (and it should be), and giving either Chris Kunitz or Patric Hornqvist or both to Sidney Crosby is a given (as it should be), and demoting Conor Sheary is a given (as it should be at this point) why can’t Cullen play with Malkin more often?
If he’s “the best guy in the league with his puck on his stick in a 2-on-1 situation”, how good could Cullen be at that craft if Geno Malkin was the other guy on the break instead of Tom Kuhnhackl?!
Cullen is smart and savvy. He can see the ice like Malkin, even if he can’t cover it like Malkin. He can take some face offs for Geno (like Eric Fehr has in the past) if Mike Sullivan wants him to do so. But he’ll do so with more offensive potential than Fehr when the face off is won. According to his his coaches and teammates, even at age 39 ,Cullen is fast enough to keep up with Malkin. But he’s not going to blaze into the zone offsides with too much point A to point B speed as Malkin dangles through the neutral zone like we’ve seen from Bryan Rust, Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin at times when they’ve tried to play with 71.
Critics will say that Cullen will become overexposed with too many minutes because of his age. However, I’d argue that Rust, Kuhnhackl, and Sheary are wearing down because of their ages. The young guys appear to be getting gassed by the playoff grind of late. Rust went seven games without a point until his OT assist on Crosby’s game winner Monday. Kuhnhackl’s lone goal in his last 12 went off his back. Sheary hasn’t scored since the New York series ended. He’s a -5 during that time and was benched during the third period. Meanwhile, in Lovejoy’s words, Cullen is a “freak of nature.”
Here’s my two cents: Leave the H-B-K line alone. Give Crosby both Hornqvist and Kunitz. Sid is happiest that way. And those two wingers can play their normal role. Have Cullen play left wing on Malkin’s line. Put Rust on RW. If not him, get Beau Bennett back in the line-up in that spot and scratch Sheary. That would drop Rust onto a 4th line with Kuhnhackl and Fehr.
Cullen has exceeded expectations in every role he has played. Why wouldn’t he elevate his play in this capacity as well? And who knows…perhaps elevate Malkin’s too?