By Steve Keating
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Once a novelty act, the Winter Classic proved it can stand on its own without exotic venues and marquee names as the New York Rangers beat the Philadelphia Flyers 3-2 in another memorable outdoor showcase for the NHL Monday.
Bumped from what had been its regular New Year's Day slot to avoid going toe-to-toe with the National Football League on the final day of their regular season, nearly 50,000 hockey fans filled Citizens Bank Park.
Now five years old, past Winter Classics relied on the sport's biggest names - such as Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin - or iconic venues like Chicago's Wrigley Field or Boston's Fenway Park to grab the attention.
But this year the game relied on nothing more than one of its great rivalries, the Rangers and Flyers, separated by just 90 miles of turnpike, delivering an outdoor thriller.
"Not every game can meet or exceed the hype and buzz that goes with it but I think we but I think in that regard we had a terrific day," a pleased NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters after the game.
"This game continues to grow and get stronger. We could not have asked anymore from the event. This was just a terrific event for us."
With temperatures in the 40s Fahrenheit, the wintery scenes at Citizens Bank Park were mostly manufactured, from fake cotton snow to the faux pond kids played on prior to the opening faceoff.
But the atmosphere around the outdoor contest was one of genuine excitement as fans filled what is normally the home of Philadelphia's Major League Baseball team the Phillies.
What began as a one-off tribute to hockey's outdoor roots has quickly grown into a marketing colossus that has brought the NHL unprecedented exposure.
Four of the five most-watched NHL regular-season games in the U.S. since 1975 have been Winter Classics, scooping up more marketing and business awards than Wayne Gretzky in his prime.
But after a half-decade, the Winter Classic is no longer unique, each outdoor contest having raised the bar a little higher.
This year, Rangers Michael Rupp, who had just one goal coming into the game and has only once scored more than 10 times in a season during a nine-year NHL career, was the unlikely triggerman scoring twice to help erase a 2-0 Flyers lead.
Brad Richards also scored for New York but it was goalie Henrik Lundqvist who delivered in the clutch, denying Danny Briere on a penalty shot with 20 seconds to play to preserve the victory for the Eastern Conference-leading Rangers.
Claude Giroux, with his 18th of the season, and rookie Brayden Schenn, with a memorable first career goal, accounted for the Flyers scoring.
"It's been a great experience for our organization, it's been a great experience for our players," said Rangers coach John Tortorella.
"I have to admit, it's been it's been an experience for me, too, as far as just how they have done their business, and they have been first class."
(Editing by Alastair Himmer)