Drake's last chance?
The man who played in his first playoff game in 1993 as a Detroit Red Wing, is back helping that same franchise try to make it to the Stanley Cup this spring. The Red Wings' Western Conference final series against the Dallas Stars opens Thursday (7:30 p.m., Versus) at Joe Louis Arena.
Drake's final playoff game in his first stint with the Red Wings was a Game 7 first-round loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, watching Nikolai Borschevsky score at 2:35 of overtime to eliminate Detroit.
"Early on, you really don't know what it takes to get there," said Drake. "You think for some reason or another, you're going to have the chance to do it every year. Then you realize that it's hard enough just to make the playoffs, let along get to the Stanley Cup final."
Drake learned the hard way. Traded to the Winnipeg Jets in 1994, Drake started his career with eight seasons of either not making the playoffs (twice) or losing in the first round (six times).
(The 39-year-old Drake is old enough that he was a member of the Jets' final squad -- one that lost to the Red Wings in the first round of the 1996 playoffs. That same spring, a 12-year-old Winnipeg boy, Derek Meech, cried when he couldn't get playoff tickets for the Jets. Meech's father eventually got the tickets. Meech and Drake are now teammates.)
At the age of 32, Drake finally found playoff success in his first season with the St. Louis Blues. In the spring of 2001, St. Louis advanced to the Western Conference final before losing in five games to the eventual champions, the Colorado Avalanche.
That, however, has been Drake's only taste of the third round in a 15-year NHL career … until now.
After missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons with the St. Louis Blues, Drake had a 3-10 series record in the post-season through last summer. After signing with the Red Wings as an unrestricted free agent, he's now part of a unit that has won six consecutive games and is 8-2 through two rounds.
But is Drake's full-circle stop in Detroit possibly the final chance at a championship for the 39-year-old?
"I'm not going to lie; It's in the back of my mind," said Drake. "You come to the rink every day and try to enjoy it. I have throughout my career. Especially as you get older, you relish being around the guys a little bit more. I try to take a step back and have as much fun as I possibly can."
What Detroit coach Mike Babcock has had fun with this spring is watching Drake play.
After getting in 65 of the 82 regular-season games, Drake has been a fixture on the third and fourth lines in the Wings' 10 playoff contests. He's averaging 11 minutes of ice time per game and is second among the team's forwards with 20 hits.
"Dallas Drake likes running (defensemen) early in the game," said Babcock. "And I like watching him run 'D' early in the game."
After more than 1,000 regular-season games and 78 playoff contests, Drake is four wins away from his first trip to the Stanley Cup final.
"If it's not the hardest trophy to win in sports, I don't know what one beats it," said Drake. "Football is obviously very tough because so few teams make the playoffs. But in hockey, you've got to win 16 games. Sometimes you have to play 28, 30 games. Just to have the opportunity to play for it is so difficult."