Mike Rupp had to rank among the most unlikely heroes of the 2003 Stanley Cup Final between the New Jersey Devils and Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Names such as Scott Niedermayer, Paul Kariya, Scott Stevens and Adam Oates, all strong candidates for future Hall of Fame induction, littered both rosters.
He was a member of the taxi-squad of players prior to making his playoff debut in Game 4 following a Joe Nieuwendyk injury.
As the hard-fought series culminated with a decisive Game 7, it was Rupp who earned an eternal spot in Devils’ playoff lore. He deflected a Niedermayer shot past Anaheim netminder Jean-Sebastien Giguere 2:22 into the second period. It would be the only goal New Jersey would need on this night.
Less than 10 minutes later Rupp collected the rebound of another Niedermayer shot and fed Jeff Friesen for a score. Rupp would set Friesen up again late in the third period to ice the 3-0 victory. With his goal and two assists, Rupp was named No. 1 star of the game.
“It was something I will always remember,” Rupp said recently. “I think when you win a Game 7 it changes your career and the desires in your career. You want nothing else than to get back there and I haven’t since so it is something that lingers.”
Rupp will get to re-live those memories when New Jersey visits Mellon Arena Saturday night for a 7:30 p.m. meeting with the Penguins. This will be the second time in his career Rupp will face his former squad – he was traded to Phoenix less than a year after his Cup-clinching goal, and went against them while a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2005-06 season.
Nonetheless, Rupp is excited to face his former teammates, especially after spending the past three seasons with them in a second tour of duty.
“I have a history with a lot of the guys. It’s different but at the same time it’s an opportunity to make a statement to the team I’m on now.
“Anytime it’s a divisional game you want to take a stand and let them know there aren’t going to be any easy games against you.”
No game has been easy for the Penguins in ’09-10 as the defending Cup champions. They get the best in their opponents every night, and through the early portion of their schedule are handling the pressure well, sitting atop the NHL with a 9-1 record.
Such a start has made the Penguins once again a favorite to reach the Final for a third-consecutive season, a huge factor in Rupp’s decision to leave the Meadowlands for the Steel City in the offseason.
“I think once you win it, it’s just a thorn in your side to get back there. I won it my first year and I think you think you’re going to be back there every year. The farthest I have gotten since is the second round.
“It’s something that I’m hungry for and I know this team is too. It was a highlight but I would like to put that on the backburner and create some new memories.”
Rupp’s joining the Penguins has created a unique situation, perhaps unprecedented in league history. The past three players to score the game-winning goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final now wear Penguin sweaters – Rupp, Ruslan Fedotenko for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004 and Max Talbot for the Penguins in June.
“Someone pointed it out to me in the summer that the last three Game 7 game winners are on the same team,” Rupp said. “I think it’s cool. It’s a testament to what is intriguing about the NHL players – it is not always the superstars that are coming through.
“You look in the past you have guys like Darren McCarty and some of these guys who have huge hearts in the runs of these teams. It is something that is great. When it’s clutch time, you look for anyone to step up, and it was an opportunity for me.”
On the losing end that night for Anaheim was Rupp’s current coach, Dan Bylsma. Rupp said that his new boss has mentioned this on a few occasions.
“He has joked around about it. Before I signed he said something about still holding a grudge against me.”
Rupp was quick to counter Bylsma’s claim.
“My response was that his summer is going to be pretty special so I don’t think he has anything to complain about.”
With Rupp contributing like he has through the first 10 games, as his two goals are already one-third of the way to his career-high of six, he and Bylsma could have memories to share together this coming June.