WINNIPEG — When he was 15 years old in Winnipeg, Ryan Reaves was at least as good at football as he was at hockey and was leaning towards following his famous father, former Winnipeg Blue Bomber running back Willard Reaves, on to the gridiron.
But at a spring bantam hockey tournament, Reaves somehow tore ligaments in his knee while shaking hands after a game. He could have had no idea as he lay on the ice at old Dutton Memorial Arena, next to the Red River, that this inexplicable slip would alter the course of his professional life.
He missed the entire fall football season and when the Brandon Wheat Kings drafted him into the Western Hockey League, Reaves figured he better play hockey instead.
“And that brings us here,” Reaves, 31, said Sunday.
Reaves scored the goal in his hometown that knocked the Winnipeg Jets out of the National Hockey League playoffs and lifted the miraculous Vegas Golden Knights into the Stanley Cup Final in their first season.
A healthy scratch for most of the playoffs’ first two rounds, Reaves had not scored a goal since Feb. 15, since before he was acquired by the Knights from the Pittsburgh Penguins at the NHL trade deadline. But at 13:21 of the second period, he deflected in from the high slot Luca Sbisa’s point shot to send Vegas towards a 2-1 victory and five-game trouncing of the ridiculously heavily-favoured Jets.
Let me repeat: Ryan Reaves scored the winner from Luca Sbisa to put the Golden Knights, which did not have a roster this time last year, into the Stanley Cup Final.
“If that (injury) didn’t happen, I probably would have made the decision to play football,” Reaves said. “But I missed the football season and that was that.”
This is a true story. And so are the Knights, who have become one of the most improbable team success stories of our time, building a 51-win, 109-point regular season with players deemed expendable by other NHL teams, then tearing through the Western Conference playoffs with a 12-3 record.
Of those 15 games, they were the favourites in zero of them.
The oldest Knight, 36-year-old Deryk Engelland, held aloft the Clarence Campbell trophy just seven months after holding a microphone at centre ice in Las Vegas and promising fans that their new team would do everything it could to help the city heal after the Oct. 1 murder of 58 concert-goers there.
They have spectacularly over-delivered.
“It’s a crazy story, but we’re not done,” Sbisa said. “We had a really good start to the year and we just kept going. We went down to our fifth goalie and kept winning.
“A lot of guys have been in the league a lot of years and never been this close (to a Stanley Cup). To do this as an expansion team… it’s crazy. But we deserve it. Why not? A lot of people keep saying we’re going to lose. But we never once think about what they’re saying; we think about us. It’s been a fun ride, but we’re not done.”
“I’ve got to be honest, it’s tough to say exactly how (this happened),” Knights’ forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said. “It’s a big credit to the people who created this entire organization a year before we even got picked. They did all the work to make us feel like, as soon as we put a step in Vegas, we felt like home. We felt welcome.
“They were clear … about how we have to play if we want to be successful. I feel like every guy has understood that and played a role in that. When you have 20 guys or more that understand their role and play only for the team, it’s a successful team even if we don’t have the biggest superstar in the league. Besides our goalie.”
The goalie is Marc-Andre Fleury, who won three Stanley Cups in Pittsburgh but was tossed to the Knights in the expansion draft last June after losing his starting job. He stopped 31 of 32 shots on Sunday, improving his playoff save percentage to .947 and goals-against average to 1.68.
If the Conn Smythe Trophy is awarded today, Fleury wins in a landslide.
Nobody needs the rest the Knights have earned this week more than Fleury, who appeared to suffer some discomfort in his leg or hip making a save on Sunday. And no team needs one player in these playoffs more than the Knights need Fleury.
“He’s our line leader,” defenceman Nate Schmidt said. “And he’s showing us the way home.”
“You ever have that in grade school, where one person leads the line?” Schmidt explained. “Like: ‘Who’s going to lunch?’”
Or who’s going to the Stanley Cup?
You won’t believe the answer.
“Everybody on this team has something to prove,” Reaves said. “We call ourselves the Golden Misfits for a reason. We’re doing a good job of proving everybody wrong.”