Nothing, it seemed, could dampen fans' adoration of the Vegas Golden Knights during the happy first few months of the team's existence — and then general manager George McPhee acquired brawny forward Ryan Reaves from Pittsburgh on Feb. 23.
With the passion of the newly converted, followers of recent vintage complained McPhee had destroyed the team's chemistry by getting Reaves and a fourth-round draft pick for prospect Tobias Lindberg. With knowledge gained from following the sport here or in cities more steeped in hockey culture, longtime fans declared McPhee was wrong to bring in a tough guy who couldn't play. Reaves' ineffective debut — he took three penalties in back-to-back losses to the Kings — didn't endear him to a suddenly indignant fan base.
"Ruined the whole team," Reaves said Tuesday, somehow keeping a straight face. "I apologize to Vegas."
Actually, he apologized to coach Gerard Gallant for hurting Vegas' chances to win those two games. He said he would put the team before himself and avoid bad penalties, a vow he upheld by getting only four more penalty minutes in 21 regular-season games with Vegas.
Gallant appreciated Reaves' sentiments. "I said, 'Listen, you play the game the way you play the game. Don't worry about it.' That was three months ago," Gallant said. "He was upfront and took responsibility and I said, 'Just play your game,' and he's been excellent ever since. And he doesn't take penalties, he really doesn't."
Reaves committed an infraction Monday that wasn't penalized, leaving him open to score the tying goal as Vegas rode out a Stanley Cup Final-record four lead changes and rallied for an exciting if ragged 6-4 victory over the Washington Capitals in Game 1. He cross-checked Capitals defenseman John Carlson seconds before he lifted a shot above goaltender Braden Holtby but the officials didn't call it, just as they didn't initially see the interference by Washington's Tom Wilson that briefly knocked Vegas scoring leader Jonathan Marchessault out of the game in the third period.
The inconsistency of NHL officiating is only slightly less astounding than the sight of Reaves, who scored the Western Conference-clinching goal in his hometown of Winnipeg on May 20, combining with Tomas Nosek (two goals in Game 1 against Washington) and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare to make Vegas' fourth line a first-rate scoring threat in the playoffs.
The Capitals on Tuesday took the tack that they can make the adjustments necessary to dictate the play more consistently and be more calm than they were in Game 1, which was a feeling-out exercise for both teams. They learned what they could, they said, and moved on.
"It's a penalty, but what are you going to do?" Carlson said of Reaves' cross-check after the Capitals practiced in advance of Game 2 on Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena.
"That's just a battle in front of the net. I don't know what he was whining about," Reaves said after the Golden Knights extended their winning streak to five and improved to 7-1 at home.
The difference in opinions was predictable, but Reaves' playoff success was no certainty. He couldn't crack Vegas' lineup until the finale of their six-game dismissal of San Jose in the second round but has become a fixture and an asset for a small team that needed the implied threat his muscular, 6-foot-1, 225-pound frame brings.
Gallant scouted the playoffs last year for potential future Golden Knights and liked Reaves' efforts for the St. Louis Blues; Reaves later was traded to the Penguins, who wanted him to deter the postseason punishment routinely inflicted against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel but later found him expendable. "You see a big guy that goes hard to the net and forechecks hard and is around the net," Gallant said, "and he makes people make plays a lot quicker than they want to."
Winger James Neal sees that too. "He's effective, he's physical, he's a mean guy, so you don't want to run into him," said Neal, who joked that he had expected an apology for Reaves' rocky start with the team. "And now he's chipping in offensively, which is great. He's got better skill than people give him credit for."
Reaves, who can become an unrestricted free agent after the season, has had to make himself a better player in order to survive the decline in the use of enforcers. "All these big guys are leaving the league now and the game's getting faster. It's getting younger. So you've got to adapt," he said. "I only had six fights this year and they were all within the first two or three months.
"I think there's always going to be physical play in this league and as long as I can keep up and be able to catch guys and do it in a way that's not hurting the team, yeah, I think I got a spot here."
Yeah, he does, and he doesn't have to again tell Gallant that he's sorry. "I'm having a blast," Reaves said. "The whole playoff series, I don't know if I've stopped smiling when I'm on the ice."