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STANLEY CUP FINALS

Devils Have Anonymous Help

An unknown quantity before Game 7, Rupp more than adequately fills in for Nieuwendyk by having a hand in all three goals of Devils' clinching victory.

June 10, 2003|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J — EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- How improbable was it that Michael Rupp would play a major role Monday night in the New Jersey Devils' 3-0 victory over the Mighty Ducks in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals?

Afterward, a reporter asked him, "Who are you?"

The Ducks are probably asking themselves the same question.

Before he was added to the Devil lineup in Game 4 of the finals to help them try to counteract the Ducks' dominance in the faceoff circle, the rookie from Brunswick, Ohio, had never played in a playoff game as a professional.

Not in the minors with the Devils' American Hockey League affiliate at Albany, N.Y., and not with the Devils, who called him up in January, used him in 26 regular-season games and then all but forgot about him for two months.

Stocked with veterans, they made it through the first three rounds of the playoffs and the first three games against the Ducks without him.

Rupp, meanwhile, hadn't participated in a playoff game since 2000, when he was playing in the junior-level Ontario Hockey League.

And if veteran center Joe Nieuwendyk hadn't been sidelined because of a torn muscle, Rupp might still be waiting for his chance.

So nobody would have suspected that the 6-foot-5, 230-pound forward would have a hand in all three goals in the Devils' most important game of the season, least of all Rupp.

"I just wanted to contribute in any way, whether it was winning a faceoff or getting a big hit or blocking a shot," he said after scoring the first goal on a second-period redirection and assisting on two goals by Jeff Friesen. "It's great the way it worked out, but all the other guys on the team did little things to make it possible."

He blanched when asked about filling Nieuwendyk's shoes.

"I by no means filled his shoes," he said. "This guy's been talking to us before the games, and you can tell by looking in his eyes that it was eating him alive being unable to play.

"For me to not give it that much more for his sake ... he inspired me big time. He was always there to lend a helping hand. He deserves this more than anybody."

Rupp helped deliver it.

Only two weeks ago, he couldn't have even imagined it.

As the playoffs opened in April, he said, he figured he'd be involved.

"But the later the playoffs went, you kind of see that glimmer of hope disappear," he said. "But there was a group of about five of us here that trained really hard with the strength and conditioning coach. It was tough, but he kept us going and kept us in good shape."

And Coach Pat Burns finally called on him last week.

"Coach Burns put me in this situation and showed he believed in me, and I've been blessed with that situation," Rupp said. "It turned out great."

Though he's only 23, Rupp's ascension was a long time coming. Bob Whitten, his coach at St. Edward's High, recommended Rupp to an old friend, Bobby Orr, and the hockey legend showed up one day to watch him play.

That led to a three-year stint in juniors, during which he was a first-round pick of the New York Islanders in 1998. He didn't sign with the Islanders, went back into the draft pool in 2000 and was a third-round pick of the Devils.

Recalled from the minors on Jan. 13, his birthday, Rupp ended the regular season with five goals and three assists in 26 games.

Three of his regular-season goals were game-winners.

Still, he couldn't have imagined anything like Monday night, when he got his stick on a shot by defenseman Scott Niedermayer and redirected it between the legs of Jean-Sebastien Giguere for the only goal the Devils would need.

Or could he?

"I had a funny feeling," he said. "You know, I by no means knew that I was going to get a goal, but I felt really good today when I woke up."

No doubt he felt even better by the time he nodded off early this morning.

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