WASHINGTON (AP) Do the Pittsburgh Penguins need Evgeni Malkin if they have Matt Cullen?
Probably. But while the star Russian center has missed 14 consecutive games with an upper-body injury and is expected to miss the first round of the playoffs, the Penguins are 13-1-0 and rolling toward the end of the regular season with Cullen a surprising leader on offense.
Cullen embodies Pittsburgh's success under coach Mike Sullivan, especially since Malkin went down. The journeyman forward has six goals and five assists since getting bumped up the lineup.
''Obviously you're happy anytime the puck goes in the net,'' Cullen said after his two-goal game Thursday against the Washington Capitals. ''It's been good. I've been fortunate I've gotten to play with a lot of good players this year, and I've been on the receiving end of a lot of nice plays.''
At age 39, Cullen is on his eighth NHL team and making some of the best offensive contributions. His 16 goals are his most since 2009-10, four teams ago.
Cullen is also a top penalty-killer for the Penguins and has played the 13th-most shorthanded ice time among forwards league-wide. Sullivan appreciates Cullen's contributions beyond the rink, too.
''The way I look at Cully, he's almost an extension of our coaching staff,'' Sullivan said. ''He's a great pro. I don't know how else to say it. He's a good person, he's got a great influence on our group. And he's still a terrific hockey player. ... Regardless of what we ask him to do based on what our lineup looks like, he accepts that role and makes his adjustments.''
Cullen won the Stanley Cup in 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes and has 74 games of playoff experience, something many of his younger teammates are lacking. He is an alternate captain despite this being his first year in Pittsburgh.
The offense from Cullen could fade, but his defensive talent and penalty-killing alongside Eric Fehr will remain useful.
''He sees the ice really well and we've worked off each other really well,'' Fehr said, ''so that's been one of the more fun things this year.''
In Malkin's absence, Cullen has been centering the third line between Tom Kuhnhackl and Fehr but has been a sparkplug for the offense. In 24 total games without Malkin this season, Cullen has nine goals and seven assists.
Of course, captain Sidney Crosby has driven the bus with a near MVP performance since Sullivan replaced Mike Johnston as coach. But the Penguins wouldn't have vaulted into second in the Eastern Conference without team-wide contributions from Cullen and Co.
''We're playing hard and we're playing for each other,'' goaltender Matt Murray said. ''We're doing things the right way and we're not cheating. We're scoring but we're not cheating to do it. I think we're playing a really solid team game right now, and as a goalie watching from the back, it's fun to watch.''
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