Michael Rupp made his NHL debut with the New Jersey Devils in January 2003, and six months later was responsible for scoring the Game 7 Stanley Cup-clinching goal.
In the ensuing seasons Rupp's physical play and willingness to stand up for his teammates probably became more responsible for keeping him in the League than his goal-scoring ability -- until he joined the Pittsburgh Penguins last season and had a career-high 13 goals, he'd never scored more than 6 in a season.
So while it's safe to say Rupp would have loved his highlight moment from the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic to have involved lighting the lamp -- perhaps off a slick feed from, say, Sidney Crosby -- it's also not surprising that it instead came when he dropped the gloves midway through the opening period and squared off with Washington Capitals defenseman John Erskine.
"I think it's just about the way you're used," Rupp had said prior to the game, while estimating he fought only about three times per season 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."
Rupp posted triple-digits in penalty minutes for the first time in 2008-09, when he recorded a career-high 136 during the final season of his second stint with New Jersey. He followed with 120 to complement his breakout offensive effort in his first season with Pittsburgh. This season, Rupp has 3 goals and 70 penalty minutes in 39 games.
Erskine, who recently was signed by the Capitals to a two-year contract extension, has shown a willingness to do whatever it takes in his own right. He's never played more than 60 games in an NHL season, and the 3 goals and 9 points he has so far in 2010-11 are career bests, but on a blue line that features top gun Mike Green and up-and-comers John Carlson and Karl Alzner, the little things Erskine does shouldn't go unnoticed.
Although Erskine has only been in triple digits in penalty minutes just once in his career -- he registered 161 while splitting 2005-06 between the Stars and Islanders -- the 6-foot-4, 220-pound defenseman wasn't backing down against the 6-5, 230-pound forward when push came to shove behind the Washington net with 8:08 left in the first.
While nearly 70,000 fans at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field stood on their feet and cheered, Rupp and Erskine traded blows for approximately 30 seconds, with neither going down before the officials eventually stepped in and escorted the players to their respective penalty boxes.