Thomas lands in the perfect spot

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Way back in March, Mike Babcock stood against the wall outside his team's locker room and convened the last pregame news conference of the regular season. Two or three reporters gathered around him. The first question came: "Coach, why did you guys acquire Steve Thomas?"

Babcock did not smile. "Because," he said, "Oatesy and I needed an old guy to hang out with."

A typical Babcock one-liner. And funny, to be sure. But he could have done better. Like if he said, "Because Stumpy is the kind of guy you want out there in overtime of the Stanley Cup finals."

But that was exactly -- well almost exactly -- the reason for the deal that brought Thomas from Chicago. The young Ducks needed someone with playoff experience. Of course not even Thomas thought he would have the playoff experience of a lifetime. "I was a little apprehensive (about coming to the Ducks)," Thomas said before much more than two or three reporters after his Game 4 overtime winner Monday night. "I didn't know how far we'd go in the playoffs."

Thomas was on the Blackhawks' team plane -- bound for Anaheim -- when the trade went through. GM Mike Smith had told Thomas he would try to send him to a playoff team, but Thomas assumed he meant a team with expectations of winning the Cup. Little did he know that the Ducks actually had those expectations. "I have been so pleasantly surprised," Thomas said.

But Babcock wasn't surprised. Thomas fit right in, scoring 10 goals before the end of the regular season, including his career record-setting 13th OT goal on April 1, and giving Anaheim a nice combination of fire and deftness. Plus he is weathered, which almost no Duck can say. "Every minute he played in the past," said Jean-Sebastien Giguere, "is a minute we can use as a team. We are using it as a team. It's great to have him."

While younger Ducks may only hope to get the overtime winner in a Cup finals game, Thomas considers scoring a duty and a point of pride. "I was embarrassed the way I was playing," he admitted Monday night. And so when Babcock turned to him in the locker room before overtime of Game 4 and said, "It's your time," Thomas took the prod not as a tweak but as a mandate. He scored the winner only 39 seconds into the extra period.

Asked what he feels he brings to a tense overtime, Thomas didn't hesitate before answering: "Having that feeling that you can make a difference is half the battle."

And thanks to Thomas, half the Ducks' battle is now over.

Eric Adelson is a staff writer for ESPN Magazine. E-mail him at ric.adelson@espn3.com.