Winter Classic becomes stage for Rangers, Flyers unlikely heroes
PHILADELPHIA -- The NHL's Winter Classic has become an unlikely showplace for fourth-liners and support players. Maybe there are just better body-heaters on the end of the bench.
Sure, the New York Rangers needed a game-winning goal from Brad Richards and superb goaltending from star keeper Henrik Lundqvist, who made 34 saves, including a penalty shot from sniper Danny Briere with 19.6 seconds to play. But the two goals from New York enforcer Mike Rupp, his second and third of the year, to one for Philadelphia's oft-injured center Brayden Schenn, the first of his 18-game career, were enough to propel the Rangers to a third-period comeback in its 3-2 win against the Flyers on Monday.
"The ice, I thought, was really good," said Rupp, who tallied late in the second period and early in the third to rally New York from a 2-0 deficit, "but late in the game it wears, so it kind of gives guys like me a chance to do something ugly."
If fact, the goals from unlikely sources began midway through the second period, when Flyers defenseman Matt Carle shot from the left point. New York defenseman Ryan McDonagh abandoned his left defense position to try to play the rebound and when he missed, he left an easy path for Schenn to knock in the rebound.
The Flyers increased their lead to 2-0 on a goal by leading scorer Claude Giroux at 14:21 of the middle period, but it took New York just 30 seconds more to get one back. Defenseman Michael Del Zotto pinched in deep and when he didn't come up with the puck, it left Giroux and Scott Hartnell with a two-on-one against inexperienced Ranger defenseman Anton Stralman. Giroux converted Hartnell's pass, apparently sending the Flyers on their way.
With his frontline players unable to break through, Ranger coach John Tortorella sent out ruffian forwards Rupp and Brandon Prust on the next shift and the pair combined for New York's first goal, as Rupp beat Sergei Bobrovsky over the glove for just his second goal of the season. Less than three minutes into the third period, the line combined for the tying goal, as Rupp scored from a nasty angle -- below the left faceoff dot -- on a weak shot Bobrovsky should have stopped.
In their locker room after the game, the Rangers passed a celebratory fedora to Rupp, as the team's reward for a job well done. It's the Rangers' equivalent of a game ball or game puck, and it was Rupp's first chance to wear it this season. "I couldn't be happier for him," Tortorella said of Rupp. "I tell you what he brings. There's a respect he brings to that room with a really young corps that's needed. He's a really great teammate. Him and Pruster, they're two important guys as far as the glue to our hockey club."
Brad Richards gave New York what would be the winning goal three minutes later, but Rupp had the fedora. "Pretty nice fit," he said later. Just a year ago, Rupp was with the Pittsburgh Penguins when they lost on home outdoor ice to the Washington Capitals, 3-1. "It's a catch-22, this game," he said. "In losing last year, you say it's just two points, but it felt like the seventh game of the playoffs because of the atmosphere ... You hear the hollowness behind you. You feel like you have more time than you think. It takes a whole lot to get used to."
Rupp's heroics -- and the near heroics of Schenn -- followed those of the role players before them. Two years ago, when the Bruins beat the Flyers, 2-1 in overtime at Fenway Park, the Flyers got their only goal from Danny Syvret, a defenseman who amassed a combined seven points in stints with the Oilers, Flyers, Ducks and Flyers again. He's now with the Blues' organization. Last season, when Sidney Crosby went head-to-head with Washington's Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals won 3-1 thanks to two goals from Eric Fehr, whose name (pronounced like Fair) sums up his play on a good day.
Lost amid the frozen pageantry of a game played in 41 degrees before almost 47,000 fans was the significance of a contest between two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. The revived Rangers are tied for the NHL lead with 52 points. The Flyers, two years removed from a trip to the finals, sit third in the East with 48.
But perhaps the lure of playing the outdoor game convinced Ranger defenseman Marc Staal to return to the lineup. Staal had been out since February with a concussion after being hit by his brother, Eric. In all, Staal skated a modest 12:41. Look for Tortorella to up his ice time as his recovery permits. "On the first shift I started skating forward on a one-on-one," he said, "so I was a bit of a wreck out there. But really it was alright."
Ironically, the absence of Staal, the team's top defenseman, enabled a system that relied heavily on disciplined structure and forced other backliners such as Del Zotto, Dan Girardi and McDonagh to grow into roles with greater responsibility. In the closing minute, the officials whistled McDonagh for closing his hand on the puck in the crease behind a scrambling Lundqvist. That gave the Flyers a penalty shot for any of the players they had on the ice at the time of the infraction. Flyers coach Peter Laviolette chose Briere instead of Giroux for the honor.
After one fake, Briere tried to shoot past Lundqvist's left side, but the goalie knocked the shot away with his left pad. "I tried to be patient and do my thing," said Lundqvist, who won his 17th game and had already made breakaway saves in the first period on Giroux and Jaromir Jagr. "He's tricky guy. If I make the first move, he's gonna score."
The ending was better than anyone could have expected in a game that shined a light on players nobody would have guessed would turn out to be the heroes.