When the Penguins were on their scheduled bye week in the early part of January, while most of his teammates were basking somewhere warm, Matt Cullen and his family went home to their native Minnesota.
While there, he played a little pond hockey.
It turned out to be a pretty productive practice session.
Cullen scored the winning goal in the third period, leading a core of players from traditional cold-weather climates who helped the Penguins beat the Philadelphia Flyers, 4-2, on Saturday night in a windswept Stadium Series game in front of an announced crowd of 67,318 at Heinz Field.
The Penguins improved to 2-2 in outdoor games.
“I gotta tell you, I don’t know if I’ve had more fun playing hockey,” Cullen said. “It was such a fun night. It was a good game up and down the ice. I was just kind of blown away by the atmosphere. It was pretty cool seeing how many people stuck around with low temperatures. Just the whole thing, it was one of the those bucket list deals. I was really happy I got to be a part of it.”
Jake Guentzel, another Minnesotan, set up the Penguins’ first two goals. Nova Scotia’s Sidney Crosby scored the first one. Matt Murray, from Thunder Bay, Ontario, made 36 saves.
“That’s what makes it so fun,” Cullen said. “This is what we all grew up doing. This is where we all fell in love with the game. It’s just fun to be able to do this on such a big stage.”
Guentzel was at the center of the many of the most important events in the game.
In the middle of the first period, he connected with Crosby for the game’s first goal.
Guentzel skated into the high slot and made a subtle shot fake, enough to get Philadelphia’s defenders to collapse toward the middle of the ice. Crosby drifted toward open ice along the goal line in the right-wing corner, took a pass from Guentzel and buried it past diving goaltender Michal Neuvirth.
In the second period, Guentzel made a similar pass to set up Nick Bonino for a power-play goal from the right circle that gave the Penguins a 2-0 lead.
Guentzel also absorbed a headshot from Brandon Manning, committed a turnover that led to a Jakub Voracek goal and was in the penalty box when Shayne Gostisbehere brought the Flyers within one at 3-2 in the third period.
“You don’t really know what to expect coming in,” Guentzel said. “When you first walk out, it’s pretty crazy. You get the chills. Obviously to come out on top, it’s nice.”
Cullen’s most significant impact came when he scored to give the Penguins a 3-1 lead early in the third. He took a puck from Eric Fehr behind the net, wrapped a shot around into Neuvirth’s pads and scored on his own rebound.
It was the first outdoor game for Cullen, who made his NHL debut in 1997.
“It goes to tell you that we’re pretty fortunate to play in these games,” Crosby said. “Some of us have played in three or four of these. For a guy like Cully, to take advantage of it and to have fun out there, I think it’s just special to see him score.
“Cully gets that big goal, which enabled us to kind of play a little bit more loose and go after them a little bit more.”
The Penguins got an insurance goal in the third period from defenseman Chad Ruhwedel, a San Diego native who made no apologies for disrupting the Penguins’ cold-weather motif.
“It was pretty cool,” Ruhwedel said. “Obviously that’s a goal for everybody, to try and score in the game. When it finally went in, it was surreal.”