Cullen could return in expanded role when Pens host Jackets

PITTSBURGH — Sidelined since Jan. 16 due to a foot injury, Pittsburgh Penguins center Matt Cullen could rejoin the lineup when his team plays host to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday at PPG Paints Arena.

Normally the team’s fourth-line center, Cullen’s potential return could see him manning the left wing on the first line.

With left winger Conor Sheary sidelined four to six weeks due to an undisclosed injury, Cullen skated alongside center Sidney Crosby and Patric Hornqvist in practice Thursday.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan stopped short of guaranteeing Cullen would play Friday, but offered some assurance Cullen would be up to the task of skating with a superstar like Crosby.

“If we play him there, he’s a guy that has hockey sense,” Sullivan said. “He’s very sound defensively. He can take faceoffs. He can take some of the load off Sid down low in our end zone. He’s got real good hockey sense and puck skills on the offensive side of the game.”

“For me, it’s about getting in and just try to get on pucks and just try to help out offensively,” said Cullen. “I think there are (challenges) but I think there’s more positives. I think the challenges are just trying to play at that level. He plays at a level that no one else plays at. A guy like that elevates your game. To me, it’s fun to play with guys like that.”

Cullen, 40, has lasted 18 seasons in the NHL thanks in part to his versatility. A move to left wing doesn’t appear to pose a challenge.

“I haven’t played a lot there this year but it’s not a major adjustment,” Cullen said. “I feel real comfortable over there. I’ve played a lot of wing over the last few years.”

If he does play, Cullen will face a Blue Jackets team which has a three-point lead over the Penguins for second place in the Metropolitan Division. In the first game following the All-Star break Tuesday, the Blue Jackets claimed 6-4 road win against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Despite the victory, the Blue Jackets were not happy with their defensive game.

“We’re gravitating (toward the puck), and it’s almost like we’re playing man-to-man on defense, and we don’t play man-to-man,” coach John Tortorella said to the Columbus Dispatch. “There’s no communication, so a lot of people get (stuck) in between. Four or five times (against the Rangers), it’s a two-on-zero in front of our net. There’s a number of times they had guys just wide open.”

With the Penguins leading the NHL with a goals-per-game average of 3.55, the Blue Jackets realize they need to be better in front of their net.

“Everybody got so wound up (Tuesday),” center Brandon Dubinsky said. “Just relax and focus on doing the little things, doing your job, making simple plays. We have to get back to being stiffer, being harder. If we lose it, we have to get it back in a few minutes. But we can’t just completely fold the tent for a period or 25 minutes, and that’s been the situation for is in the last 10 games or so.”

According to the Columbus Dispatch, Blue Jackets defenseman Markus Nutivaara, sidelined for seven games due to an undisclosed ailment, traveled with the team to Pittsburgh but is expected to remain sidelined.