KINGSTON, Mass. — Apparently Evie Reissfelder wasn’t willing to miss this.
Her parents, meanwhile, were more than happy to do their part.
Little Evie, born premature at 6 pounds, 2 ounces just 12 days ago, provided one of the highlights of Penguins coach Mike Sullivan’s public viewing of the Stanley Cup Thursday afternoon at The Bog Ice Arena.
“She came a week early and very fast,” Evie’s mother, Jen, said. “She was determined to come out.”
Paul, Evie’s father, coaches girls hockey at Duxbury High, the school closest to Sullivan’s home. He had never met Sullivan but had heard from a couple friends about his approachable nature.
Those impressions were backed up Thursday. After shaking the coach’s hand, the group posed for a picture, placing the tiny baby in the Cup.
“Looking back, when she gets older, she’ll be like, ‘All right, I was in the Stanley Cup.’ ” Paul said. “That’s everyone’s dream.”
Sullivan relished the experience to share the Cup with the community, inside the rink where he once stood behind the bench for his own kids’ games.
“I feel like it’s our responsibility. I think all of our players feel that way,” Sullivan said. “I think that’s part of the hockey culture, regardless of which team wins it. Hockey players never forget where they came from. They always want to share in their successes. This is one way that we can do it.”
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Matt Cullen with his three sons after the Penguins won the 2016 Stanley Cup. (NHL)
Last weekend, Matt Cullen drove east to the Twin Cities to watch his three sons play hockey. On Wednesday, immediately after ending a conference call with the Wild media, Cullen ran into a rink in Grand Forks, N.D., to join his recently-retired hockey-playing brothers, Mark and Joe, so they could all coach their children in a series of games.
This is why Matt Cullen decided against retiring a back-to-back Stanley Cup champ and against re-signing with the Pittsburgh Penguins despite the allure of three-peating.
“I want my boys to experience playing hockey and watching me play hockey at home,” Cullen said. “This was a family decision.”
The former Moorhead High and St. Cloud State standout is returning to the Wild for a second stint and 20th NHL season. It was an agonizing decision. He loved his time in Pittsburgh. He adores General Manager Jim Rutherford, who has acquired him three times. And, of course, there was the appeal of being in Steel City for another banner raising.
But after letting the excitement of winning it all for a third time in his career wear off and making sure he felt fully energized to put his body through another 82-game and playoff run meat grinder, Cullen decided his heart was in Minnesota.
“Minnesota is home and it’s a special place for me,” Cullen said. “It’s not easy to say goodbye and it’s not easy to walk away [from Pittsburgh]. I’m confident in the decision we’re making and it’s the right thing for our family. But at the same time, it’s not an easy one.
“But at age 40, it’s time to let the kids plant some roots and settle down at home because, as you go through a long career, the kids give up a lot in order to allow you to play. At a certain point here, it becomes more important to be fair to them, too. It’s a great scenario that I can continue to play in the NHL and be home. It’s an organization I’m really comfortable with and happy to be a part of.”
This isn’t all family driven, Cullen made clear: “Last year I thought that Minnesota was the best team in the West that we faced during the regular season. … It’s going to be a really hungry group to win, and I think that last season probably left a sour taste for a lot of guys [in the playoffs].”
Cullen signed a one-year, $1 million contract with the chance to make another $700,000 depending on how many playoff rounds the Wild wins.
“I’m hoping we pay them all,” General Manager Chuck Fletcher quipped.
The deal inches the Wild close to the $75 million salary-cap ceiling once restricted free agent Marcus Foligno is signed. However, if Cullen hits his bonuses, there is a cushion that allows teams to exceed the cap by 7.5 percent if needed.
Coincidentally, Cullen and Foligno have the same agent.
Cullen, who will celebrate with the Cup on Aug. 31 in Moorhead and Fargo, N.D., was leaning toward going out on top in June. He has played 202 games the past two seasons, so he spent much of the past month discussing with his wife, Bridget, the pros and cons of continuing to play. The Wild made clear its interest but gave him the freedom to call back once he decided if he wanted to return. He scored 33 goals and 91 points in 193 games for the Wild in 2010-13.
The Cullens’ three boys spent the past two years being schooled by a private teacher at the Penguins’ practice facility. The couple wants to get their sons back into a regular routine where they can meet friends in Minnesota.
“[Bridget’s] fully on board and is behind me all the way. I’m really lucky that way,” Cullen said.
After taking a few weeks off, Cullen began training like he normally would. Last week, he even skated with local individual skills and skating coach Andy Ness.
He may turn 41 in November, but Cullen showed the past two seasons he can still skate terrifically. He won 56.4 percent of his faceoffs in the playoffs, has won over 50 percent of his draws in every season since 2003-04 and has scored at least 10 goals in 15 of his 19 campaigns.
The Wild needed another center after losing Erik Haula to expansion Vegas. Rookies Joel Eriksson Ek and Luke Kunin will vie for roster spots, but Cullen gives the Wild a veteran leader who can slide up and down the lineup with injuries or roster decisions. Coach Bruce Boudreau likes to shorten the bench late in games, and Cullen allows the Wild to move Charlie Coyle or Eriksson Ek to wing if needed. He’s also a top penalty killer.
Cullen, who has played the most games of anybody from the 1996 draft, has scored 248 goals and 689 points in 1,366 regular-season games. He has scored another 18 goals and 56 points in 123 playoff games. He will be reunited in Minnesota with Eric Staal, his close friend whom he won a Stanley Cup with in Carolina in 2006.
“I’ve talked to him quite a bit over the last couple weeks, and I’m excited for him and for our team,” Staal said. “Everyone that’s watched him play the last couple years for Pittsburgh knows he’s been an important part to that team, and I think he’ll fit nicely into a great role with our group.
“Playing with him in Carolina, and just watching how he prepared daily, how he took care of his body, how professional he is, I’m not surprised he’s still going now. We had a great, phenomenal couple years together there, and I think his experience, what type of teammate he is and his ability to play in all situations will be beneficial for our group."
T.J. Watt sacks Josh Johnson in last week's preseason opener. (Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)
You may recall that our time together in this space last week discussed the plight of the Steelers’ defense, one racked yet again by injuries to multiple members of the secondary, players ranging from the promising (Artie Burns) to the battle-hardened (Mike Mitchell) to the unknown (Cameron Sutton and sadly, Senquez Golson).
Last Friday’s preseason opener, a win over the New York Giants, offered flashes of hope that even if the secondary isn’t vastly improved this year, it may appear to be anyway. The reason? A rookie that, at first blush, made an eye-opening impression.
You would be forgiven, this close to the end of the Jarvis Jones Era, for forgetting what it is like to see a first-round defender make a major impact right off the bat. Sure, the usual disclaimers about preseason football apply, but T.J. Watt was present and accounted for, and if someone had told you before the game that the Steelers’ first-round pick was playing defense, but didn’t identify who it was, you wouldn’t have had to wait long to reach an answer.
Watt made plays when he was blocked. He made plays when he was unblocked. He flew all over the field and was noticeable in a good way. He displayed the combination of athletic ability, tenacity, explosiveness and finishing ability you’d expect from a first-rounder. His unblocked sack, one that required him to plant his foot and change direction quickly, drew raves from Joey Porter.
So eye-opening was Watt’s work that Porter more or less anointed Watt and Bud Dupree the Steelers’ primary pass-rushers for every snap, save ones where they need a breather or are injured. Yes, that means that the ageless James Harrison has been relegated to, as Porter put it, the role of “relief pitcher.”
This is a good thing, of course. Harrison’s workouts and longevity have earned him status as a cult favorite in the waning years of his career, but the fact of the matter is that the Steelers stand to be much, much better if Watt and Dupree are logging the bulk of the snaps. Harrison might not be happy about this, but his stubborn hold on the lion’s share of snaps for one outside linebacker spot was nothing less than a condemnation of Jones.
Youth is served at just about every position in the NFL. The list of players pushing 40 and playing at a Pro Bowl level is one: Tom Brady. Harrison’s ability to fight off Father Time has been a fun story in a sense, but also has served as a stark reminder of the Steelers’ defensive shortfalls.
T.J. Watt may not win Defensive Rookie of the Year. He might not log 15 sacks. He might not instantly become the best player on the Steelers’ defense. He might not be the singular difference that puts the Steelers over the top against Tom Brady. But he certainly appears to be off to a better start than Jarvis Jones. He certainly appears to be the kind of potential high impact player the Steelers desperately needed at outside linebacker. He appears to be the kind of guy that may be a big boost to a team trying to maximize the last few seasons of Ben Roethlisberger’s career.
One exhibition game does not a career make, but for a fan base accustomed to a few recent high-profile flops at what was once the most glamorous defensive post in the franchise, it was welcome proof that the world hasn’t turned completely upside down, that a guy can step in at outside linebacker with pedigree and expectations, and at the very least deliver the kind of performance that gets fans thinking about his ceiling, not wondering if they’re looking at his floor.
Chris Mueller is the co-host of "The Starkey & Mueller Show" from 2-6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 The Fan.
Head coach MIke Sullivan of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with the Stanley Cup trophy after defeating the Nashville Predators 2-0 in Game Six of the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Bridgestone Arena on June 11, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee.
(Frederick Breedon/Getty Images North America)
Two years ago, Mike Sullivan was preparing for his first season in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization … as the head coach of the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Pittsburgh hired Sullivan in June 2015, and before that, he wasn’t behind any bench, holding the title of player development coach with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Now heading into just his second full season as bench boss of the Penguins, Sullivan is already the greatest coach in franchise history.
Many will probably argue its too early to make such an outlandish statement, and in a way, they are correct. Sullivan is tied for ninth on the franchise’s all-time wins list. He needs to lead the Penguins back to the playoffs four or five more times to usurp Dan Bylsma for the No. 1 spot.
And it’s not as if Pittsburgh hasn’t seen other great coaches such as Scotty Bowman, Bob Johnson and Michel Therrien walk through its doors. Bowman has 250 more victories than anybody else in league history while Therrien, Johnson and Bylsma have combined to win nearly another 1,000 games.
But Sullivan has something that none of those coaches do — multiple Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh. Johnson could have done that had he not died after the 1991 title, but he didn’t get a chance to lead the team to its second championship in 1992. Bowman could have as well, but after the huge upset playoff loss to the New York Islanders in 1993, he bolted for Detroit.
Coaching in Pittsburgh longer than either of them, Bylsma had more chances to become the first Penguins coach with multiple rings. But while talented, his teams were mentally weak. Inferior opponents routinely got Pittsburgh off its game during the postseason, and it led to early exits. The Penguins blew two 3-1 series leads during the playoffs in a four-year span under Bylsma, and the second one led to his dismissal.
It’s hard picturing a Sullivan team squandering a 3-1 series lead. They nearly did against Washington in the second round this past spring, but then put together an epic 2-0 road victory in Game 7. Under Sullivan, the Penguins have lost three games in a row (without getting a point) just once since January 2016, and never in the playoffs.
Furthermore, Pittsburgh has lost consecutive games in the postseason just three times in two years. What’s the best recipe for Stanley Cup playoff success? Have a coach who knows the pulse of his team so well that every adjustment he makes is correct one, which leads to a 14-3 postseason record following a loss.
And being better prepared than any team heading into the series too. Pittsburgh is 5-3 in Game 1s under Sullivan.
As much as anything, that combination is why the Penguins are back-to-back champions. The team that loses Game 1 has no way to win the series without stringing together at least two consecutive wins. That’s hard to do against the Penguins in large part because of Sullivan’s ability to adjust after losses.
And not enough can be said about the mental toughness he has provided Pittsburgh in his two years. The Penguins were routinely outshot and looked beaten and tired at various points on their latest run. Yet, like they did in Game 7 versus Washington, they always responded following a bad game.
When it mattered most, the Penguins were never out-willed during the 2017 postseason. Pittsburgh has an extremely talented roster, but make no mistake, without Kris Letang and Matt Murray for a half the run, not to mention the numerous other injured players missing games or playing hurt, Pittsburgh grinded its way to a second title. The Penguins even had to play a game without Sidney Crosby, yet they still found a way to beat the best regular-season team in the NHL.
It all points to outstanding coaching.
Now, that’s not to say Sullivan is ahead of Bowman is terms of all-time best NHL coaches. Bowman remains king there, but not enough of Bowman’s success came in Pittsburgh for him to be the No. 1 Penguins coach of all-time. Actually, he lasted just two years with the team, so he only coached 28 more games with Pittsburgh than Sullivan.
And again, the Penguins have seen a coach maintain long-term success, but it’s hard not to think Sullivan is only getting started in the Steel City.
If Sullivan leads the Penguins to three more playoff series victories, he will own the most postseason victories in franchise history. Should Sullivan last four more years in Pittsburgh, and win about 42 games per season, he will also have the most regular-season victories for the Penguins.
It will take him a few more years to accumulate those totals. But while the numbers might not suggest it just yet, the two Stanley Cups and Pittsburgh’s newfound playoff mental toughness say Sullivan is already the greatest Penguins coach there ever has been.
Four exhibition games per NFL team are way too many. But you can never get enough refreshing sports notes. Easy to write, fun to read!
*Rookie outside linebacker T.J. Watt not only looked good in posting two sacks Friday, but lined up on the left side as well as his preferred right. Developing such versatility might enable Watt to get more snaps this year, what with James Harrison blocking him at right outside linebacker.
*The Steelers reportedly plan to give Watt lots of snaps early in the season, conserving Harrison for the stretch drive and playoffs. That’s exactly opposite of what’s logical, but don’t underestimate the power of fear and cronyism.
*Cornerback Mike Hilton had a team-best seven tackles to go along with an interception and fumble recovery Friday. Hilton went undrafted out of Ole Miss last year, but should still have the Steelers’ attention. If the Steelers don’t improve at corner, their defense won’t improve. Any alternative to the rapidly fading Willie Gay at nickel should be considered, and it would be good if a younger corner pushed starter Ross Cockrell down the depth chart.
*Rookie quarterback Joshua Dobbs started dreadfully Friday, then regrouped to play decent. That’s limited praise, indeed. But it matters little, because Dobbs won’t replace Ben Roethlisberger when Roethlisberger retires. If he (or Landry Jones) does, expect a couple 5-11 seasons until the next franchise QB is procured. No, the Steelers won’t sign Kirk Cousins.
*The Steelers love the football IQ and anticipation of second-year inside ‘backer Tyler Matakevich. But will that translate to him overachieving despite lacking more tangible gifts? It had better. Matakevich is just an injury away from starting, and Ryan Shazier is often hurt, to put it mildly.
*It’s logical to be wary because the Steelers lack depth at inside linebacker and in the defensive backfield. But in a 32-team league that uses a salary cap, every team has holes. It’s about improving at those positions. Play around those problems if you don’t. Above all, stay healthy.
*Memo to those who still insist on writing or talking about the Steelers of the ‘70s: Don’t. I’m begging you. Everybody not dead should be sick of that.
*If there is a groundswell among NFL players to protest the national anthem by sitting or kneeling like Colin Kaepernick did before finding himself unemployed, Oakland running back Marshawn Lynch is the perfect leader: Too good to get cut, and couldn’t care less what people think.
*It’s good to see Gibsonia native Neil Walker go to contending Milwaukee. It’s sad to see him bounce around MLB. The Pirates should have signed Walker long-term in 2015 instead of trading him to the New York Mets. It would have been a statement of intent. Just like trading Walker was.
*Protectors of owner Bob Nutting’s wallet bleat, “You can’t pay Walker that kind of money!” News flash: The Pirates won’t ever pay anybody that kind of money. Cue the departure of Andrew McCutchen. Will Washington again be interested if Bryce Harper is sidelined for a lengthy period?
*Cleveland outfielder Michael Brantley got hurt, so the Indians acquired Jay Bruce (29 home runs) from the Mets. Had the power-starved Pirates got Bruce when Starling Marte was suspended or when Polanco was injured on July 21, they might lead the NL Central. Bruce's left-handed power would be perfect for PNC Park. Organizations that prioritize winning solve problems. The Pirates just give John Jaso more at-bats.
*If the Pirates had Bruce, having too many perceived starting outfielders when all were healthy would be an easy problem to solve: Bench Marte or Polanco. Both have disappointed this year. Between injuries and underachieving, Polanco seems a bust. He should have lips tattooed on his neck.
*If the Pirates win the division, credit goes to the players and no one else. The Pirates’ unlikely contention is about their grit and opportunism. It’s also despite ownership’s frugality and Clint Hurdle’s lapsing managerial acumen.
*U.S. Olympic men’s hockey coach Tony Granato wants to make Matt Cullen captain of his team if Cullen, 40, opts to not play in the NHL. That sounds like a nice exclamation point for Cullen’s career, and would be a shorter commitment. But if Cullen elects to keep playing, he should do it for an NHL paycheck, not star-spangled participation in a second-rate tournament.
Mark Madden hosts a sports talk show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).
Pittsburgh Pirates' Andrew McCutchen (22) leaves the baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays with an injury during the third inning Friday, Aug. 11, 2017, in Toronto. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)
TORONTO -- Andrew McCutchen's early exit because of a sore left knee took some of the shine off a solid pitching performance by Pittsburgh's Jameson Taillon.
Taillon worked six innings to snap a three-start winless streak, Josh Harrison had two hits and the Pirates beat the Toronto Blue Jays 4-2 on Friday night, their seventh win in nine games.
McCutchen limped off one batter after hitting an RBI double in the third. A five-time All-Star and Pittsburgh's leader in home runs and RBI, McCutchen is day to day.
"I was just taking my secondary lead and my knee kind of grabbed," McCutchen said. "If your knee could get a cramp, that's what it felt like."
Tests performed at the stadium showed no damage, and McCutchen said his knee was feeling better following the game.
"We're moving in the right direction tonight," he said. "I'm walking fine, not limping or anything."
Toronto lost for the first time in seven interleague games.
Making his first start in Canada, his parents' home country, Taillon (7-5) allowed two runs and six hits.
"He really didn't run into any trouble," interim manager Tom Prince said.
Taillon said he was excited to pitch in Toronto, where he watched games as a child. He left more than a dozen tickets for family and friends, while as many as 30 more paid their way in.
"I've got a ton of texts of screen shots of my mom on the broadcast, which is cool," Taillon said.
Taillon left after Toronto put runners at second and third with no outs in the seventh. George Kontos came on and retired the next three batters.
Blue Jays right-hander Marcus Stroman (10-6) allowed four runs, none earned, and four hits in eight innings, snapping a six-start unbeaten streak. The loss was his first since a July 3 road defeat against the Yankees.
Pittsburgh took advantage of two errors by Blue Jays second baseman Rob Refsnyder to score four unearned runs in the third. After making an errant throw to second while trying to force John Jaso on Francisco Cervelli's grounder, Refsnyder failed to touch second base while trying to turn a double play on Adam Frazier's hard shot to third, allowing the Pirates to score their first run.
Harrison followed with an RBI single, McCutchen hit an RBI double that ticked off center fielder Kevin Pillar's glove, and Josh Bell capped the rally with a sacrifice fly.
"That's what you do against good pitchers," Prince said. "They gave us a crack, we took advantage."
Stroman took the blame for not overcoming the defensive miscues.
"I felt like I should have done a better job of buckling down and getting my team out of that," he said.
Jose Bautista hit a solo home run for the Blue Jays, his third in three games after going 18 games without one. Bautista's homer was his 20th, giving him eight straight seasons with at least that many. Carlos Delgado, who did it in nine straight seasons between 1996 and 2004, is the only other Blue Jay to achieve the feat.
Among active players, only Seattle's Nelson Cruz (2009-2017) and Houston's Brian McCann (2008-2016) have streaks longer than Bautista's. Miami's Giancarlo Stanton (2010-2017) has also hit 20 or more in eight straight seasons.
PRINCE TAKES THE THRONE
Usually the bench coach, Prince will manage the Pirates again Saturday because Clint Hurdle is away attending the funeral of late slugger Don Baylor.
Taillon is 4-1 with a 2.12 ERA in six career interleague starts.
Blue Jays: C Russell Martin left while warming up for the second inning because of a strained left oblique suffered in his first-inning at-bat. Gibbons said Martin will undergo an MRI on Saturday. "Those injuries are never good," Gibbons said. Raffy Lopez replaced Martin. ... DH Kendrys Morales(illness) missed his second straight game.
Pirates: RHP Trevor Williams (5-4, 4.17) pitched seven shutout innings against Detroit in his previous start. Williams has never faced the Blue Jays, but is 1-0 with a 1.29 ERA in two interleague starts.
Blue Jays: RHP Chris Rowley will be promoted from Triple-A Buffalo to make his major league debut. A former first lieutenant in the United States Army, Rowley began the season at Double-A before moving up to Buffalo, where he went 3-4 with a 2.82 ERA in 10 games, including six starts.
New York Giants quarterback Josh Johnson (8) is sacked by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt (90) during the first quarter of a preseason NFL football game, Friday, Aug. 11, 2017, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
No matter how many new cornerbacks the Pittsburgh Steelers draft, the front seven still sets the tone for their defense.
Rookie T.J. Watt and veteran Arthur Moats got that message across in Friday's20-12 preseason victory over the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium, abusing a maligned New York offensive line for five combined sacks. Watt flashed athleticism with two sacks on his first four NFL plays, and Moats gobbled up three more quarterback takedowns along with an interception.
This production came from the Steelers' backups at outside linebacker (assuming James Harrison starts alongside Bud Dupree). That's how you create competitive depth.
QB depth chart:Joshua Dobbs settled down after two brutal interceptions in the first quarter, finishing with 100 yards on 8-of-15 passing and a 28-yard touchdown to Cobi Hamilton. Dobbs looked comfortable throwing the ball downfield and skittish on over-the-middle throws in traffic. Bart Houston took over midway through the third quarter and made a few good throws but failed to connect on a big play.
When it was starters vs. starters, the Steelers looked ...: Physical on defense (especially nose tackle Javon Hargrave, who looked sharp), but the offensive line wasn't playing with its usual edge. The Steelers rested several starters -- including multiple O-linemen -- and it showed. The Giants had clear shots on Dobbs on several occasions. Backups need to clean things up in case the Steelers' starters suffer injuries early in the season.
That guy could start: Defensive lineman Tyson Alualu looks like the ideal first defensive lineman off the bench who can also start games. The former Jacksonville Jaguar looked athletic moving laterally and helping stop the run. He also aided Moats on a sack. The Steelers always have had that free-agent reserve tackle/end to help with depth, but Alualu has a starter's pedigree.
Rookie watch: Coach Mike Tomlin might be right in saying after the game that Watt's two sacks were relatively easy to complete, but Watt's athleticism and high motor showed up throughout the first half. On multiple occasions, he either pushed the tackle back or beat him off the edge (Giants backups, but still). He chases the ball on every play and doesn't get fooled by play fakes.
Don't sleep on Cobi: Hamilton started camp with a few drops but has played better of late, resulting in a 72-yard preseason opener. It's easy to assume Hamilton won't make the numbers game, but he has a chance at the 53-man roster. He's a quality blocker, and though he doesn't have elite speed, he's good at stretching out for passes.
Keeps making plays: Cornerback Mike Hilton is becoming a tough cut. The camp favorite among fringe players recorded a sack off a corner blitz and recovered a fumble on punt coverage. In training camp, the ball seems to find him. That's translated to game action.