PHILADELPHIA — The indelible image of Mike Rupp at the Winter Classic was not a favorable one. His decisive loss in a fight with Washington Capitals defenseman John Erskine in last year’s event while with the Pittsburgh Penguins was a pivotal moment, and not in a good way.
Monday, Rupp changed all that with a salute.
The tough guy is more known for dropping the gloves than scoring goals, but Rupp ignited a New York Rangers comeback by lighting the lamp twice in a 3-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers at Citizens Bank Park.
“I think that that’s one of the great things about this team is it comes from all over,” Rupp said. “We’ve got some big-time players on our team, but we also have a lot of character on our team that will step up when needed.”
After his first goal beat Sergei Bobrovsky, Rupp removed his right glove and gave the salute made famous by Flyers right wing Jaromir Jagr. It was just what the Rangers needed trailing 2-0 with a majority orange-and-black crowd of 46,967 buzzing.
Jagr, who played played only 7:09 after aggravating a left leg injury, pledged to pay Rupp back.
“I don’t really pay attention to that stuff. He decided to do it, and he scored. It was a good goal, too,” Jagr said. “But, we’re still gonna play them three more times. I think I’m gonna score, and I’m gonna salute him back.”
Rupp’s could hardly have been expected. He had just one goal in 14 games this season and just 50 in 511 career NHL games. But listening to what the 31-year-old said Sunday, it shouldn’t be surprising that he was able to find a groove.
“We’ve done the home-opener type thing where the crowd’s going to be in it. You just can’t run around like a chicken with your head cut off,” Rupp said. “You’ve got to have a purpose, have a plan, be under control. Play with emotion and battle, but be under control and that’s what our plan is.”
Rupp was hardly prophetic early on as the Flyers carried the play and took a two-goal lead in the second period. The replica Liberty Bell in right-center field that usually celebrates Phillies home runs was tolling and lighting up against a rapidly darkening sky as Philadelphia dominated.
Rupp came to the rescue for the Rangers. In the third, he sniped a goal from an odd angle to tie the score and bring the New York fans to life. When Brad Richards scored soon after, the ballpark started to feel like Madison Square Garden as many sang the traditional Rangers goal song.
The Flyers gave the NHL just what it wanted in the way of drama in the final minute, pressing on offense and drawing a penalty shot with 19.6 seconds left. Henrik Lundqvist stoned Danny Briere on the attempt, his biggest stop of 36 on the day.
“There was a lot of pressure on me there,” Lundqvist said. “It was exciting. The whole game was exciting. The end was pretty intense, but it was great. But I just tried to be patient, and it worked out.”
It worked out well for the Rangers, who take a four-point lead atop the Atlantic Division. And while Lundqvist’s saves were huge, this was a rewarding victory and performance for Rupp, a journeyman who was counted on to provide toughness and grit on a young team. He missed 22 games earlier this season with a knee injury that required surgery.
In just his 15th game of the year Monday, in temperatures dipping into the 30s, Rupp couldn’t have looked more comfortable. There’s no doubt his experience in last year’s Winter Classic helped in that regard.
“If you get down a goal, there’s not much tape-to-tape passing going on so you really got to come out of the gates,” Rupp said. “The ice gets a little chewed up, and you got to play simple hockey.”
Rupp doesn’t have the talent to play like Richards or Philadelphia’s two goal-scorers, Brayden Schenn and Claude Giroux. Simple is the only way for him, but it made him the star in Monday’s snowy spectacle.
“I think that’s the point of getting guys like that and signing guys like that in the offseason is you have your system, you have your team and you want to add guys that are going to help that, help your system, help your game we played,” defenseman Dan Girardi said. “He’s been great for us so far.”
No time greater than during the Winter Classic, an event that led teammates to salute Rupp back.