Those facts are not lost on either guy.
“I’m 40 here, and I understand where the world of hockey is at,” Cullen said Sunday at Stanley Cup media day. “I know very well that this could be my last chance.”
Talking of savoring the moment isn’t new for Cullen. He did this exact same dance last year, explaining that he knew his future was uncertain, but also how he wanted to focus on the present.
For Kunitz, though, this was new.
The 37-year-old is in the last of a three-year deal, set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. He, too, trotted out the usual cliches on media day — take it one game at a time, focus on the present, embrace the opportunity at hand — but there was more.
Kunitz, who’s been a Penguin since the 2008-09 campaign, acknowledged the special bond developed with his teammates over the last several years, and how it could soon be over.
“We’ve been together for so long,” Kunitz said. “Our families are close, the kids are getting older and you realize that we’ve been really fortunate to have this great group of guys that have stuck together for so long. It’s rare to have guys stay for that long.
“So you just want to capitalize and make the most of it. [We’ve] all gone out for dinner together before the trade deadline, never knowing where your hockey career’s going to go. It’s something you put into your mind, but you’ve got to go out there and achieve your success every time you can.”
This was a down year for Kunitz. He finished the regular season with just nine goals — one of the lowest totals of his career — and went a staggering 35 games without finding the back of the net before his Game 7 heroics against Ottawa.
It was a huge moment against the Sens, to be sure. The first double-OT winner in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final since 1994. It’s one of the biggest goals in Penguins franchise history.
“[Kunitz] played his best game of the playoffs when it matters the most,” Carl Hagelin said following the game. “That’s the type of guy he is and that’s the reason he has three Stanley Cup rings already. He’s just one of those guys you love having on your team.”
Though he can still contribute and remains a good depth forward, it’s unclear if this is the end of Kunitz’s time in Pittsburgh. His role has decreased significantly over the last few seasons, and the club has enjoyed good success implementing younger, speedier forwards like Bryan Rust, Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary.
But like Cullen, maybe Kunitz and the Pens can find a way.
Cullen went nearly all of last summer without a contract, eventually agreeing on a one-year, $1 million extension to come back to Pittsburgh. It was a relatively modest pay bump — up from the $800,000 he made the season prior — but befitting for a guy that had 16 goals and 32 points in the regular season, and another seven in 19 games to help the Pens win it all.
As mentioned above, this may be it for Cullen. Especially if he wins another Cup. The allure of going out on top is strong, and he says he really can’t envision himself playing anywhere other than Pittsburgh.
“I’ve been through this enough that I know I need to give it some time,” he said. “It’s a decision for me that means a lot, and carries a lot of weight.
“Pittsburgh has just been a perfect fit, in all regards. The community’s been awesome and, for me, the hockey has been unbelievable and couldn’t have gone any better. When you’re sitting here and it’s your second Stanley Cup Final in two years, obviously it’s been a dream.”