Philadelphia, PA – Nearly eight years ago a 23-year-old rookie named Mike Rupp played the game of his life and by the end of the night he was lifting Lord Stanley's Cup.
Now a veteran at 31 years of age, Rupp is the kind of role player who has rarely been in the spotlight since scoring the clinching goal and adding two assists for New Jersey in Game 7 of the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals.
That changed on Monday, when Rupp scored two of the New York Rangers' three goals in a 3-2 comeback win at the 2012 Winter Classic in Philadelphia. While it's not exactly Game 7 of the Cup Finals, the league's annual outdoor game has become the signature television event of the NHL regular season and Rupp's big day helped make the fifth edition of the Classic something special.
When you talk about Winter Classic moments, most people mention Sidney Crosby at the inaugural event in Buffalo. Crosby won that contest for Pittsburgh on New Year's Day, 2008, as he tallied the game-winner in a shootout at a snowy Ralph Wilson Stadium. That moment will likely live on for a long time as the defining image of the Winter Classic, but Rupp and Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist added some excellent memories to the event on Monday.
Rupp's biggest moment came at 14:51 of the second period when he scored just 30 seconds after Claude Giroux had given the Flyers a 2-0 advantage. It was obviously a big goal in terms of timing, as it swung the momentum clearly in the favor of the visitors and Philadelphia was never really able to get it back.
But what makes the goal truly memorable is Rupp's celebration, which mocked Flyers forward Jaromir Jagr's well-known salute to the crowd. Jagr has used the celebration for years and years and had plenty of opportunities to do it while skating for the Rangers from 2004-08.
Of course, Rupp's homage to Jagr did not go over well with the tens of thousands of Flyers fans assembled at Citizens Bank Park, nor did it sit well with Philadelphia forward and Jagr linemate Scott Hartnell.
Cameras caught Hartnell and Rupp having an exchange after the end of the second period and NBC Sports' Darren Pang overheard the conversation. Pang confirmed that the chat was indeed about the goal celebration and that Hartnell felt that Rupp should have more respect for a future Hall of Famer of Jagr's stature.
That couldn't have played out any better for Rupp and the Rangers. Not only did he score a momentum-shifting goal for New York, but he also got at least one Flyer worried about something other than the game.
Rupp's second goal that tied the game at 2-2 less than three minutes into the third period was not nearly as memorable and was a shot that Flyers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky should have stopped. But the damage was already done and less than three minutes later Brad Richards, who unlike Rupp is a player know for his offense, scored the game-winner on a nice shot off a rebound.
"It was a whole team effort, and I just got to shoot the puck twice and it went in," Rupp said after the game.
While Rupp's first multi-goal game in over two years was special, Lundqvist provided perhaps the most enduring image of this year's Classic when he stoned Philadelphia's Danny Briere on the first-ever penalty shot in the event's history.
The fact that the penalty shot came with just 19.4 seconds left in the third period of a 3-2 game made the moment especially dramatic. In the end New York's stellar Swedish netminder rose to the occasion, closing his five-hole at just the right moment to deny a highly-skilled shooter like Briere.
"I was just trying to be patient and do my thing," Lundqvist said. "He's a sneaky guy, and there was a lot of pressure on me."
While Rupp rightfully garnered a great deal of the spotlight for his two-goal day, Lundqvist was essentially the difference in the game. He stopped 34-of-36 shots overall and was clearly better than Bobrovsky, who was forced into duty because Philly's No. 1 goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov -- the breakout star of HBO's 24/7 Winter Classic series -- had gone 0-3-1 and surrendered 16 goals in his previous four outings.
Overall, it was a special day on the ice for the Rangers, but Philadelphia and the NHL should also be proud of the way the event went off without any major problems. The home of Major League Baseball's Phillies proved to be a magnificent setting for the Classic and a brief interlude of snow flurries helped remind everyone of that special afternoon four years ago in Buffalo.
In the end it was what the Winter Classic should be, a regular-season game that seems like it's worth more than a regular-season game because of the unique surroundings. However, as Rupp noted after the contest, it's not wise for players of the winning team to mistake an emotional win in a special setting for anything other than a regular-season win.
"It was a great experience and feels great to win this one. It had that feeling of (a Game Seven), but at the same time you don't want to get too caught up in it because it wasn't a Game Seven. It was a fun, cool thing to be a part of, but it was two points and we can't let our heads get too big."