February 14, 2011 at 2:12 pm

John Niyo

Wings' Kris Draper still grinding, but knows 'the end is coming'

Red Wings Darren Helm, left, and Kris Draper celebrate a goal by Draper in the second period Sunday. (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)

Detroit -- His linemates are in their mid-20s, and one of them, Darren Helm, probably was still in diapers when Kris Draper began his pro hockey career back in the late-1980s.

So, no, the Wings' veteran center needs no reminders about his age at this point, three months shy of his 40th birthday.

And yes, with most of his old teammates already retired — like Kirk Maltby, who was in a suit in the press box Sunday as a first-year NHL scout for the Wings — Draper says he's well aware that "the end is coming."

But it's days like this — scoring the winning goal against an Original Six opponent before a sellout crowd at Joe Louis Arena — that remind him he's not kidding himself thinking the end hasn't arrived already.

That, and the look on son Kienan's face as he handed him another souvenir puck after the 4-2 win over the Boston Bruins. It's an early birthday present for Kienan, who turns 9 this week and brought eight of his hockey buddies to Sunday's game to celebrate.

"Yeah, that's pretty cool," said Draper, whose wrist shot at 12:44 of the second period proved decisive. "Leaving the house (this morning), he wasn't asking for a goal, he was more or less telling me to get a goal. So it was exciting. I think you could tell by the smile on my face, I was pretty pumped when it went in."

So was the crowd, obviously. And not just because it was Draper — a fan favorite as one of only a handful to have played 1,000-plus games in a Red Wings uniform — who finally gave the Wings a lead against the Bruins.

Lucky charm

Sunday's matinee was the 11th consecutive sellout for the Wings, but it also marked the ninth straight game on home ice they failed to lead after one period. And while Sunday's win completed a weekend sweep of Boston, the Wings remain a sub-.500 club at home — four wins, five losses — since Christmas, which is why they got booed off the ice last week after a listless performance Wednesday against Nashville.

"We deserved it," Draper said after the fans responded with a loud ovation at the end of Sunday's win. "Whether it's your first or second year here or if you've been here 20 years, it's not too often that you hear that. And it bothered a lot of us walking off the ice. Not the boos, but the fact that we gave 'em a reason to boo us.

"That's something that is unacceptable. We take a lot of pride in our work ethic, in how we go out and compete. We weren't doing it and we knew it. And the fans let us know — rightfully so."

After a dominant 6-1 showing Friday night in Boston, the Wings looked like they'd overslept again to start Sunday's game. They trailed 2-1 after 20 minutes, looked shaky defensively, and the natives were getting restless again.

Earlier, the team had rolled out the red carpet for a pregame ceremony honoring Chris Osgood for his 400th career win back in late December. And it was Draper, fittingly, who represented Osgood's teammates, skating out with a bouquet of flowers for his wife, Jenna, at center ice. Osgood and Draper are the best of friends and former roommates — their daughters were busy goofing around on the ice after Sunday's game — and Draper even joked after his game-winning effort, "I told Jenna I'm gonna need a kiss before every game now."

Still, the irony of that ceremony for Osgood — complete with the career-retrospective video — wasn't lost on Draper, either. Osgood, the Wings' backup goalie, is still working his way back from hernia surgery last month, and the 39-year-old admits this could be his last NHL season. Draper also is in the final year of his contract and knows this might be it for him, too.

Splitting time

Heck, six months ago, Draper thought he might be done after getting injured the first day of training camp in Traverse City and then undergoing hernia surgery in October. When he finally was healthy enough to play in December, Draper had trouble cracking the lineup for coach Mike Babcock.

The ice time that used to belong to him as the team's checking-line center now goes to Helm and Justin Abdelkader, among others. (Those two combined to win 17 of 22 faceoffs on Sunday, by the way.) Draper still played the fewest minutes of anyone in a Wings uniform on Sunday.

"I feel I'm a confident guy and I'm sure of what I can do," Draper said, "but … when you're a healthy scratch, doubt sets in."

And no doubt, he may feel that way again soon, when Valtteri Filppula (knee) and Mike Modano (wrist) return to the lineup later this month and Babcock finds himself with extra forwards again.

"I thought Drapes was good, and that line's been a real constant for us," Babcock said of Helm's line with Draper and Patrick Eaves, whose nifty pass set up Draper's goal — his sixth in 28 games. "They seem to do things right each and every night."

For most of the last two decades, that's been Draper's role for this team, happily grinding away while the stars shine. And even now, in the twilight of his career, he insists that's his intention.

"With an opportunity, I feel like I can still play and I can skate and I can still do some good things and help out this hockey club," Draper said. "In the big picture, when everyone gets healthy, do I know what my role is? No. But I'm just gonna keep doing what I'm doing."

When it was all done Sunday, that was reason enough to smile.

john.niyo@detnews.com

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Kris Draper’s goal in the second period Sunday proved to be the winner. It ... (David Guralnick/The Detroit News)