Winnipeggers revered his father but don’t much care for him — especially now.
Ryan Reaves will be remembered as the home-town guy who wielded the final dagger, scoring the game-winning goal Sunday afternoon in the Vegas Golden Knights’ 2-1 triumph over the Winnipeg Jets.
The 31-year-old fourth-line forward, the son of former Blue Bombers all-star running back Willard Reaves, parked himself in the high slot and deflected a point shot by defenceman Luca Sbisa over the right shoulder of Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck with 6:39 left in the second period to snap a 1-1 deadlock.
Vegas preserved a 2-1 victory — claiming the best-of-seven Western Conference Final 4-1 — with some gritty defensive work and the stalwart goaltending of Marc-Andre Fleury in the final period.
Reaves was tapped by coach Gerard Gallant to play a meager seven minutes, 30 seconds, fewest of anyone on the squad. But he made his large presence felt, dishing out a couple of heavy hits and ramming his way to the front of the cage to limit Hellebuyck’s field of vision.
The goal was just his second in 42 career NHL playoff games over eight seasons.
“Everybody on this team has something to prove,” said Reaves, a long-time member of the St. Louis Blues before splitting the 2017-18 season between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Golden Knights.
“We call ourselves ‘The Golden Misfits’ for a reason. We’re doing a good job of proving everybody wrong.”
Looking to infuse some toughness into his skilled, savvy roster, Golden Knights general manager George McPhee acquired Reaves on Feb. 23 from Pittsburgh as part of a complicated three-team deal that also involved the Ottawa Senators.
He played 21 games down the stretch for Vegas, registering just a pair of assists.
A rather improbable hero in Game 5, Reaves noted it’s been that way all season long for the storybook expansion squad, which finished 51-24-7 to win the Pacific Division and then sent the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks packing before downing the Jets.
“The whole mentality of this team is ‘next man up.’ We’ve got a deep team, we’ve got a lot of good players,” he said. “You look at the season this team’s had even before I got here, everybody’s stepping up. The guys that weren’t playing, myself included, we stayed ready. We had fun while we were doing it, but we worked hard so when we were called upon we were ready to go.”
A healthy scratch for most of the first two rounds, Reaves dressed for all five games against the Jets; shifts when he wasn’t causing at least a minor disturbance were rare.
The Bronx cheers directed Reaves way Sunday didn’t the former Brandon Wheat Kings tough guy, who played high-school hockey at St. John’s-Ravenscourt before heading to the WHL.
“Hearing the boos after I scored was probably my favourite moment of this series,” Reaves said. “It’s been a little weird. I have a couple cousins that came in Jets jerseys; a best friend came in white T-shirt, so they’re going to hear about that after.”
Hardly a fan favourite in his opponents’ home rinks, the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Reaves, an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season, has endeared himself to teammates in the three months since he joined the Golden Knights extraordinary run.
“(We) couldn’t be happier for Reavo, he’s been saving (that goal) for 3-1/2 months, at least that’s what he keeps saying. What good timing. I’m really happy for him, happy for the team. I guess proud is a good word,” said Golden Knights forward Erik Haula.
Winnipeg’s fourth line played sparingly but had an impactful shift in the second period for all the wrong reasons. Adam Lowry was cleanly beaten on a defensive-zone draw by Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and the Golden Knights worked the puck around to Sbisa, whose point shot was tipped in by Reaves.
Hellebuyck said he didn’t have a bead on the initial shot.
“I didn’t see much. But any time a guy tips it and it goes bar south you know something’s going right for them. That was tough to swallow but I guess that’s the game,” he said.
The Golden Knights were presented with the Clarence C. Campbell Bowl as the NHL’s Western Conference champions. They’ll face either the Tampa Bay Lightning or Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup final.
Tampa Bay leads the best-of-seven Eastern Conference final 3-2.
“It’s insane. If you go back to the beginning of the season, your goal is always to make the playoffs. But if I were to guess I would be sitting here doing this right now, you would be a little skeptical at the time,” said Vegas defenceman and team captain Deryk Engelland.
“But once we got rolling, we saw we have a team that can do some damage and a phenomenal goalie that’s going to stop everything. It’s been an amazing ride. We just want to keep it going now.”
Often, teams are reluctant to acknowledge the trophy and players refuse to touch it, maintaining a belief the job is only partially finished.
Engelland said the team collectively decided capturing the hardware was worth a brief celebration.
“We decided as a group to take it,” he said.
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