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Penguins’ Matt Cullen gets kick out of defying age-related expectations

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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Matt Cullen takes a shot during the first day of camp Friday, Sept. 14, 2018 at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.

It would be easy to forgive Matt Cullen if he didn’t exactly turn his effort and intensity dial to 10 for the championship game of the Penguins’ annual intrasquad scrimmage tournament Monday morning in Cranberry.

He’s 41 years old.

It’s his 22nd NHL training camp.

Safe to say he’s seen this song and dance before.

But there he was, scoring the tying goal for his team late in regulation. And there he was again, netting the lone successful attempt of the tiebreaking shootout to lead his team to the tournament title.

With three Stanley Cup rings and 711 NHL regular-season points to his credit, it would have seemed a little weird if Cullen crowed about his scrimmage accomplishment Monday. So he didn’t.

“I don’t know if we can put camp performances on the list, but it was good for Team 3,” Cullen said.

Allow his teammates to doing the crowing for him.

“Cully can play,” winger Phil Kessel said. “You watch him out there. He can skate well, and he thinks the game well.”

Or allow the coaching staff to sing his praises for a while.

“Very impressed with Matt,” assistant coach Jacques Martin said. “He’s such a professional, how he takes care of his body. What’s amazing with his age is his compete level. He’s always been a player that seems to come through in the clutch.”

Once the regular season starts, Cullen is likely to pick up some accolades a little more prestigious than scrimmage MVP.

For instance, sometime around the beginning of February, he’s on track to become the oldest player in Penguins history at 42 years, 3 months, surpassing Tim Horton and Gary Roberts, the only other players to wear the jersey after their 42nd birthdays.

Or if he manages to score double-digit goal this season — something he’s already done 15 times in his career — he will join a truly exclusive club. The only players in NHL history to have a 10-goal season after their 42nd birthday are Gordie Howe, Jaromir Jagr, Mark Messier, Mark Recchi, Teemu Selanne and Igor Larionov. Five are in the Hall of Fame, and Jagr will join them if he ever decides to retire.

When he was younger, Cullen didn’t think that type of age-group accomplishment would be something he would be particularly proud of.

As the years have passed, though, he’s found he gets a kick out of them.

“Probably more than I would have expected,” Cullen said. “It takes a lot of work to get here, and every summer, it gets a little bit harder. As you get older, you have to challenge your body more. Anytime you hit a milestone at this point, I think it comes from a lot of hard work, so there’s a good feeling that comes with it.

“That’s not the reason you play, and that’s not the ultimate goal of course, but along the way, it makes you feel good.”

The No. 1 reason Cullen plays, of course, is to compete for a Stanley Cup championship, and that’s exactly what general manager Jim Rutherford had in mind when he signed the Minnesota native to a free-agent deal July 1.

Rutherford subscribes to the philosophy of the more championship experience a hockey team can pack into its locker room, the better.

Cullen’s return ticks the Penguins’ championship-experience meter three more notches to the right.

“You go through so much to get the ultimate prize,” Cullen said. “I think there’s a different level of desire when you’re an older guy. You understand what’s at stake. When you’re a young guy, you really want to win, but you don’t have the experience to understand how difficult it is to get there. When you have a core of older guys, they all understand how precious that opportunity is and how rare it is.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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