It took Golden Knights forward Ryan Reaves three months to go from lightning rod to hot rod.
Reaves drew plenty of heat after his inauspicious February debut with Vegas coincided with a rare downturn for the team.
But he’s emerged as a key playoff contributor, helping the Knights immensely on the forecheck this postseason, then showing off his skill when he tipped in the Western Conference Final-clinching goal in Game 5 against the Winnipeg Jets.
The Hockey Hall of Fame wanted his stick to mark the occasion. And Reaves, a Winnipeg native, suddenly was the subject of jeers for an entirely different reason.
“It was nice to get my first goal as a Knight and get booed in my hometown,” Reaves, 31, said. “It was a really good moment.”
The 6-foot-1-inch, 225-pound Reaves initially stuck out on a roster built with speed and skill after arriving in a three-team trade on Feb. 23.
The Knights lost the first three games he played, one of only three three-game losing streaks for the team this season, and his physical presence immediately drew attention.
Reaves took three penalties in the three games, including two in the third period of a 4-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings that led him to apologize to coach Gerard Gallant.
“We wanted to add some heaviness and we got that in Reaves,” general manager George McPhee said. “Everybody knows how tough he is, but that’s not the only reason you acquire a guy — he can play. We just thought when we get into the games down the stretch and we’re in the playoffs, we can have a guy that can play the game right.”
The Knights didn’t give Reaves a chance to show what he could do in the postseason until Game 6 of the second round against the San Jose Sharks. He had eight hits that game in only 10 minutes of ice time, leading Gallant to play him in all five games against the Jets.
“When he wasn’t playing for most of the first two series in the playoffs, he never said a word, he worked hard, he kept the guys loose and he told the guys, ‘Let’s be ready’ and ‘Make sure you’re ready.’ He was very first class about everything,” Gallant said. “He gets his chance and he goes in there and he played great hockey. It’s not surprising.”
What was surprising was that it was Reaves who sent the team to the Stanley Cup Final with his goal in Winnipeg — his first in 26 games with the Knights. The Hockey Hall of Fame will display his stick from the game to mark the moment he became an unlikely star in one of sports’ unlikeliest stories.
“I was there with the Penguins at the archives this year. It was cool just to see a lot of history there,” said Reaves. “It’s just neat to know my stick will be there.”
Reaves’ journey will continue against the Washington Capitals, where he will be tasked with laying hits on talented forwards such as Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie. Not to mention brawler Tom Wilson, who earned a five-minute penalty for fighting in the Capitals’ Game 7 victory over Tampa Bay on Wednesday.
“I have no thoughts on Tom Wilson,” said Reaves, who has fought Wilson at least twice during his eight-year career. “Tom Wilson is Tom Wilson.”
Beginning Monday, Reaves’ toughness might suddenly turn from a source of derision to a key to the Knights’ championship hopes.
“As far as his role on the team, he knows what it is, he embraces it,” said Oshie, who played with Reaves in St. Louis from 2010-15. “He’s a team guy, he gets everyone involved. It’s very big for a team that has a guy that can do that, and every once in a while pitch in a big goal.”