Matt Cullen has worn many hats for the Minnesota Wild this season.
Playmaker. Goal scorer. Catalyst.
But his latest role is the one that may certainly leave the most lasting impact on the franchise located in Cullen's home state: mentor.
Cullen said it doesn't seem like that long ago when he himself was the rookie. When he broke in with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in 1997, Cullen said it was guys like Ted Drury, Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne who took him under their wings.
Now, it's Cullen with left wing linemate Jason Zucker -- 16 years his junior. When Cullen broke into the League, Zucker was just a five-year old in Las Vegas. Ice was a dream, much less ice hockey.
Could Cullen have even imagined back then playing that same veteran role someday?
"That old guy? You can just say it," Cullen says with a laugh. "You don't ever really think about it, it just happens so fast. I still remember being a rookie in Anaheim with Kariya and Selanne. It goes so fast, but it's been a fun run."
When Zucker broke in with the Wild at the end of last season, he played a bit role with mostly bottom-six minutes. Called up for the first time this season on Feb. 17, Wild coach Mike Yeo put him next to Cullen on the Wild's second line and watched it take off.
In his first game up this season, he scored his first career goal, the tying goal in an eventual 3-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings. He finished the regular season with four goals and five points in 20 games and was a plus-4.
And while Zucker has always played the game fast, he credits Cullen for showing him the smaller points of the game.
Does anyone stick out more than another?
"I don't think I can pick out one thing, there's a lot of stuff he's done to help me," Zucker said.
"Small things, especially as you get into the playoffs, it's the small things that make a difference," Cullen said. "We just talk about puck placement, different positioning, especially on the forecheck, how we can pucks. We talk about getting pucks back, because the more puck time we can have in their zone, we're going to create off of that."
It's that puck time that has been that second line's bread and butter this season. Along with right wing Devin Setoguchi, the trio uses its speed to win puck battles and control zone time. When that group has played well, so has the Wild.
On the bench, Zucker can be found next to Cullen -- typically having his ear talked off about something that may have happened on the last shift, or what to expect on the next. That information has been invaluable.
"More than you guys even know, he's been unbelievable all year," Zucker said. "I have to give him a ton of credit for my development."
"That's nice to hear, I don't know if that's the case, he's obviously pretty good on his own," Cullen said. "I try to help as much as I can, but often times, it's more getting out of the way of some skilled, good young kids."
Zucker scored all four of his regular season goals in his first 10 games this season. In the 11th, he took a vicious high hit from Ducks forward Corey Perry, which knocked him from the lineup for a couple of games.
When he returned, Zucker's play wasn't the same. After three games, he was returned to the Houston Aeros of the American Hockey League. He returned to Minnesota for five games in April before being sent down again.
He was called up for the final time on the eve of the Wild's regular season finale, a game Minnesota needed to win to get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They did.
"Through the highs and lows, best games, worst games, he's been there, making sure I'm not getting too high or too low and keeping my game going," Zucker said.
Zucker and Cullen were electric in Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Chicago Blackhawks, creating several Grade-A scoring chances with their speed. The rookie nearly won the game in overtime after ripping a Cullen faceoff win off the crossbar.
In Game 3, the duo was at it again, when Cullen somehow got a pass to Zucker -- while on his stomach -- standing below the left circle. The rookie didn't bother looking for a place to shoot but buried it past Corey Crawford anyway, throwing his hands in the air and crashing into the glass in celebration.
"A couple of buddies told me they would have had a better cele," Zucker said.
For Cullen, who won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, any 'cele' will do, especially this time of year.
"It's fun, you see the enthusiasm, the energy, I mean you see the reaction after he scores, it's a guy that's excited," Cullen said. "It's fun, it's what it's all about. It's fun to be here now and being able to watch that and be a part of that."
Author: Dan Myers | NHL.com Correspondent
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