Snow falling and ice deteriorating, rugged New York Rangers center Mike Rupp gained traction like an all-wheel-drive SUV filmed on a closed course for a commercial spot.
Rupp entered the NHL Winter Classic with one goal on the season and skidded away with three to become the unlikeliest hero in the five-year history of the event as the Rangers — despite facing a last-minute penalty shot — came away with a 3-2 victory Sunday at Citizens Bank Park.
“Games like this when, when the ice starts wearing, it kind of gives guys like me more of an opportunity to get something ugly,” said Rupp, who hadn’t had a multi-goal game since November 2009. “My whole thinking is that if I get a chance to shoot, I’m going to shoot. If my teammate has the puck, I’m going to the net.”
Rupp talked to reporters while wearing a flowery black cap that looked like something out of “The Great Gatsby,” a prize given away inside the Rangers’ locker room for the game MVP. It wasn’t a pretty sight, much like his two goals.
No matter. The game’s biggest storyline entering the game — Philadelphia goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, whom the team dealt for last offseason and then signed to a nine-year, $51 million contract extension — sat next to the Flyers’ bench wearing a beanie and overcoat. The gregarious goalie had been the star of HBO’s “24/7 Flyers/Rangers: Road to the NHL Winter Classic” documentary series, although his play in recent games hadn’t matched his on-screen presence.
In his place was Sergei Bobrovsky, one of three Flyers goalies who failed to distinguish themselves last postseason. His play was even shakier on the largest regular-season stage the NHL has to offer.
Rupp’s first tally came through a screen with five minutes left in the second period, a shot from between the faceoff circles. Bobrovsky appeared to be too far back in the net to cut off the angle when the puck reached him. The goal stunted the momentum that had swung totally in the Flyers’ direction with a 2-0 lead off second-period goals by Brayden Schenn and Claude Giroux.
Rupp followed the goal with a salute, mocking the goal celebration by veteran Flyers forward Jaromir Jagr — who had shut it down by that point after he re-injured his left leg. As you might expect, the Flyers had a bit of an issue with the gesture. Philadelphia’s Scott Hartnell confronted Rupp after the second period.
“He just wanted to wish me a happy new year,” Rupp said with a smirk. “I honestly don’t know what he was saying. He wasn’t happy with something.”
Rupp, a fourth-line center who recently returned from a knee injury, scored his second goal on his second and final shot — one that shouldn’t have gone in against an NHL-level goalie.
Rupp was forced wide by a Flyers defenseman and appeared to have no room to shoot as he approached the goal line. Bobrovsky, however, left some space open along the post, and Rupp was able to bank the goal in off him to tie the score at 2-2 less than three minutes into the third.
“I’ll take those ugly ones,” Rupp quipped.
Order was restored somewhat on the Rangers’ go-ahead goal when center Brad Richards, the biggest free agent on the market last summer, scored 5:21 into the third period.
The Rangers did make it interesting late. Or, if you talked to New York coach John Tortorella, the referees made things interesting.
With Bobrovsky on the bench for an extra attacker, Rangers captain Ryan Callahan drew an interference penalty on the Flyers’ Kimmo Timonen as he chased a loose puck. Callahan, however, also was called for holding the stick on the play.
Then came the call that resulted in a penalty shot with 19.6 seconds left in regulation.
“I’m not sure if NBC got together with the refs or what to turn this into an overtime game,” Tortorella said. “It started with the non-call on (Marian Gaborik), and he gets pitchforked in the stomach and everything starts going against us. So for two good refs, I thought the game was reffed horribly.”
After a scramble in the front of the net that included Flyers forward Danny Briere missing on an open net, officials determined that Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh closed his hand on the puck while it was in the crease — a violation that results in a penalty shot.
“I know in my mind I’m not supposed to cover it,” McDonagh said. “I thought I did a good job of not doing that.”
As unlikely as Rupp was to contribute as much as he did, the Rangers have come to expect — and rely on — what came next: another Henrik Lundqvist save. He turned away Briere on the penalty shot and finished with 34 saves on the day.
Despite all the fanfare, this game was worth just two points, as the Rangers were able to extend their lead atop the Eastern Conference.
“Last year, when we lost, we felt like you got knocked out of the playoffs,” said Rupp, who was a member of a Pittsburgh Penguins team that lost to the Washington Capitals in the Winter Classic a season ago. “It’s something I’m sure they’re addressing over there. It’s a big two points, but when you lose, you know it’s only two points.”