PITTSBURGH -- Michael Rupp has just one goal in 36 career playoff games, but it's the biggest one any NHL player can possibly have.
As a rookie with the New Jersey Devils in 2003, he scored the winner in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in a 3-0 victory against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Despite the magnitude of that goal, it's not something the Penguins forward thinks about all that much.
"I never really sit there and think about that. Sometimes I forget I only have one," Rupp said Saturday morning at Consol Energy Center, just hours before the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Heinz Field. "It's obviously a special one for me. You look for those opportunities. All of us want to be that guy who makes a difference for the team. Those games are always big ones and I love those ones."
Rupp appeared in just four playoff games in 2003 -- Games 4 through 7 of that Final series. He got that chance only because Joe Nieuwendyk suffered a hip injury before the series. Rupp wasn't even sure if he was going to get a chance to play in Game 7 after registering just one assist in limited ice time during his first three games.
"I didn't actually know I was playing in Game 7 until probably a couple hours before the game," said Rupp, who assisted on the Devils' other two goals that night. "(Nieuwendyk) couldn't go. He tried in the morning. So I got a chance. You just got to prepare and stay ready.
"I just remember before the game, veteran guys like Ken Daneyko, John Madden, we're sitting around at our hotel before the game and it was like, they were just telling stories, just playing it cool. I was so relaxed right then. I looked at it more as an opportunity than what was at stake."
Rupp spent the next six seasons with the Devils, Phoenix Coyotes, Columbus Blue Jackets and the Devils again, but never scored more than 6 goals in a season. It seemed the potential he flashed in New Jersey was never going to be realized, as the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Rupp transformed himself into a physical force who dropped the gloves frequently.
But during his first season with the Penguins in 2009-10, Rupp scored 13 goals in 81 games. Suddenly his scoring touch had resurfaced in Pittsburgh.
"I think it's just about the way you're used," said Rupp, who estimated he fought only about three times a year while in the minors. "When I first started getting my call-ups, I was playing on different lines for the most part. From then on, I kind of had to tweak my game because I was used as a fourth-line guy. You have to add something, so I felt like my physical game, whether it's fighting or finishing checks, it's come a long way.
"So it was fun to be used in situations where I could put some points on the board too."
The Winter Classic doesn't carry the same weight or value as Game 7 of a Stanley Cup Final, but there's no denying the attention and spotlight it generates. Perhaps Rupp, who has just 3 goals in 38 games this season, can come through with another important goal on a big stage.
"I hope so," Rupp said with a laugh. "It's been a slow season for myself as far as goals, so it'd be a good one to break out."
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