Thomas, Oates enjoying late ride

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- They have taken different paths since playing junior hockey together 22 years ago, but Mighty Ducks center Adam Oates and winger Steve Thomas have both arrived at the same juncture with the same thought.

This may be their last -- and their best -- shot at winning a Stanley Cup.

Together Oates, 40, and Thomas, 39, have played 2,785 NHL games. But neither has ever won even a single game in the Stanley Cup finals.

In 19 seasons, Thomas has never reached the finals. Oates has been to the finals once in his 18-year career -- and was swept by the Detroit Red Wings as a member of the 1998 Washington Capitals.

But over the last two years, they have both seen Ray Bourque, Dominik Hasek, Luc Robitaille and Fredrik Olausson earn their first championships late in their careers.

And no one may skate as purposefully as the man who knows in his heart this may be the last opportunity to catch a dream.

"I've never been to the finals, so I don't know what to expect," said Thomas. "I only know this chance doesn't come by every year."

Oates, who the Ducks acquired as a free agent last summer, is quick to agree.

"Obviously when you get to a certain age, you're always wondering if this is going to be your last chance in the playoffs -- your last chance to do it," he said. "Even though you think you can play longer. To have an opportunity like this is fantastic.

"Playing in the finals in 1998, even though we lost, was the best hockey experience I ever had. Now with a chance to do it again hopefully they'll be a different outcome."

The Ducks hopes for winning their first Cup have been greatly enhanced by the play of the two veteran forwards.

Oates enters the finals tied for the team lead in playoff scoring with 10 points (four goals, six assists). He scored a pair of goals in the Ducks' series clincher against Minnesota, and one of the biggest goals for Anaheim early in the playoffs when he tied Game 1 against Detroit shortly after the Red Wings had taken a quick lead.

Thomas buried the game winner in Game 2 against Detroit and scored the Ducks' first goal in their series-clinching Game 6 win against Dallas.

Both players also are skating as if they were back playing junior hockey together with the Markham Waxers.

"When I see Adam out there on the ice, he plays the same way he did 22 years ago," said Thomas. "I think I had about 69 goals that year and he gave me about 50 open netters."

Said Oates: "Everyone who plays a long time, loves the game ... We were talking about it the other day, hockey is still fun."

While Thomas admits he wondered if retirement was eminent earlier this season when he struggled through a lengthy scoring drought, neither player is saying if this could be his last season.

"I feel as good now as I did when I was 25," said Thomas, who made an immediate impact for the Ducks, scoring 10 goals in 13 games after being acquired from Chicago at the March 11 trade deadline. "My legs feel great, I'm healthy, I don't have any bumps and bruises, and the fact that we got two series in four straight has helped. We're not too banged up."

Oates has one year left on his contract at the team's option.

"I've thought about it. But we'll see what happens," Oates said. "I think I have some hockey left in me."

They have shared some of the best moments in their lengthy hockey careers in the last eight weeks as the surprising Mighty Ducks have used the stellar goaltending of Jean-Sebastien Giguere to sandwich sweeps of Detroit and Minnesota around a six-game series victory over Dallas while reaching the Cup finals for the first time in team history.

"Think about the experiences we've had -- sweeping Detroit," said Oates. "Where we are is fantastic, it's tough to tell the young guys it's not like this every year. How can they believe you?"

With the chance to arrive at a place in the hockey world they have only dreamed of visiting, the veteran Ducks will draw on their experience and their passion while leading their teammates.

"Just stay in the moment," Thomas said. "Just focus. Just to understand that this doesn't come around every day, that it's a pretty special time. To do whatever it takes to be successful."

"It's a young man's game," said Oates. "It's exciting. We love the life. You do feel young out there."

Graig Woodburn covers the NHL for the Press-Enterprise in Riverside, Calif.