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Minnesota native Matt Cullen crucial to Wild success

Minnesota's Matt Cullen fights for the puck during a Nov. 23 game in St. Paul. AP Photo/Jim Mone

FARGO - This is exactly what former Moorhead High standout Matt Cullen had in mind when he signed in 2010 with the Minnesota Wild.

The Wild is in first place in the division, Cullen leads the team in goals and for the first time in years there is hope for the postseason.

Yes, this was Cullen's vision.

"It's gone as well as I would have hoped it would go," Cullen said before Minnesota's game Friday afternoon against Edmonton at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. "Absolutely, this is exactly what I hoped for. I can't tell you how much I am enjoying it this year."

Cullen, 35, has been a key contributor to helping Minnesota come out strong following a disappointing year for both Cullen and the Wild.

Last year, Cullen was steady in the first half, struggled in the middle and came on again toward the end of a frustrating season that ended with Minnesota missing the playoffs for the third year in a row.

The Wild fired former head coach Todd Richards, hired Mike Yeo in the offseason, and Cullen was excited to get back into an offensive system that he thrived in during a Stanley Cup championship run in Carolina and a strong playoff run with Ottawa.

The move has clearly paid off.

Cullen leads the team with eight goals, and he is tied for third on the team with 12 points after 24 games.

"We are playing an attacking-style," Cullen said. "We are skating, going to the net. That really gives me a lot of freedom to use my abilities and use my style of game. Also, it's a whole new atmosphere and a whole new feel. I have been put into a leadership role and I have really enjoyed it."

Much of the talk in the offseason surrounded a new offensive look and the addition of talented goal scorers Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi that would allow the Wild to score in bunches.

Minnesota has yet to reach its full offensive potential, but the team's defense and goaltending has been among the best in the league.

Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom are each in the top 8 in the NHL in goals against average.

"You can't ask for a better goaltending situation than we have," Cullen said. "We have two of the best goalies in the league, and they are both playing at the top of our game. They are giving us a chance to win every night. We just hope they can continue playing the way they are and that we can score some more goals in front of them."

The question now becomes one of sustainability. Can Minnesota keep up this torrid defensive pace? Can Harding and Backstrom continue to shut opponents down night-after-night? Will the team become dangerous on offense when it gets more comfortable in the new system?

Cullen believes the Wild can keep the run going. However, he's quick to point out the team hasn't accomplished anything, yet.

There is a lot of season remaining, and nobody in the Wild locker room is patting themselves on the back.

"We are really happy with the way things are going," Cullen said. "We are right in the mix and we are doing some good things. But it's still so early in the season we can't afford to sit back. We still have a ways to go and a lot of improvement to make."

Heath Hotzler is a writer for the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. The Forum and Bemidji Pioneer are both owned by Forum Communciations Co.