Cullen’s Carolina Hurricanes edged Spacek’s Edmonton Oilers in last June’s Cup final. Both players changed uniforms two weeks later in free agency and are once again on opposite sides in the post-season as Spacek’s Buffalo Sabres are battling Cullen’s New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Both players agonized over their decisions to leave their respective teams in the off-season.
“I felt a lot of pressure, especially after how far we went with Edmonton,” Spacek said Wednesday, recalling his decision to sign with Buffalo on July 5. “But the decision was made and everything was great for the family. I liked Edmonton but being here, it’s much easier in the Eastern Conference in terms of travelling. The trips are shorter. Everything has worked out great here.”
Spacek, 33, signed a US$10-million, three-year deal with the Sabres, four days after Cullen, 30, signed with the Rangers for $11.5 million over four years.
“Anytime you win the Cup you want to go back,” Cullen said Wednesday prior to Game 1 of the second-round series. “We made some unbelievable friends in Carolina and really liked it there. But it was pretty clear that they had a core group of guys to sign and it was understandable – Justin Williams, Erik Cole, Eric Staal – those are guys you have to re-sign. There wasn’t really an effort (to re-sign him) but I don’t have any hard feelings, I loved it there.”
So when July 1 arrived, his phone started ringing.
“It came down to Ottawa, Atlanta, Toronto and the Rangers,” Cullen said of his suitors. “It was funny, the whole experience, July 1 came and by 5 p.m. I was already signed. It happened so fast. All these numbers are thrown out and your agent is telling you, ‘OK, these are the teams you have to choose from and you have 20 minutes.’
“I had 20 minutes to decide the next four years. It was tough. But I’m happy with the decision I made.”
Spacek’s playoff experience this year has been vastly different from 2006 when the Oilers were a No. 8 seed that stunned everyone in the West by knocking off Detroit, San Jose and Anaheim en route to the Cup final. This year, he’s with the President’s Trophy winners, the top dogs in the East who have been focused on a Cup run since last September.
“This is a totally different team,” said Spacek. “I like both teams, but this is more fun, more of a speed game, a skill game. In Edmonton there was lots of skill, too, but it was more of a hitting, powerful game.”
Cullen, meanwhile, struggled to find his place in the Big Apple. He began the year as the Rangers’ No. 2 centre but had a hard time finding his fit.
“It was a long adjustment, a lot tougher than I expected,” said Cullen, who has found a better role as the No. 3 centre. “But you know, as the year went along I finally started feeling comfortable and finding my role. By the end of the regular season I was really happy with it. But it did take a long time. I was surprised.”
He’s also a top penalty-killer for the Rangers and plays the point on one of the power-play units.
“I just feel good about where I’m at within the team and my play, I feel good about the adjustments that have been made,” said Cullen.
For the second straight year, Cullen’s playoff road goes through Buffalo. The Hurricanes beat the Sabres in seven games in last spring’s Eastern Conference final. This has made Cullen a valuable resource for Rangers head coach Tom Renney.
“I had a good discussion with Cully yesterday as a matter of fact,” Renney said after Wednesday’s pre-game skate at HSBC Arena. “We talked a little bit about some strategies that they employed to have success against Buffalo. You’ve got those resources in your locker-room, why wouldn’t you tap into those.”
Cullen says his overall Cup experience is coming in handy.
“On a personal level, I feel a lot more comfortable in this situation,” he said. “Last year it was a different feeling, it was really my first time getting this deep in the playoffs. And that experience has really helped a lot. I feel a lot more comfortable, a lot more confident at this point.”