TORONTO - Ryan Reaves delivered a pair of massive hits to roaring approval.

The Maple Leafs enforcer then dropped the gloves later in the game looking to spark his teammates, emphatically gesturing to the bench after a series of punishing blows that again had fans inside Scotiabank Arena on their feet.

Toronto fell 4-1 to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday - a night where, despite the result, Reaves produced one of his best performances in blue and white.

It was also a scenario the bruising winger had a tough time envisioning a few months ago.

Reaves, who signed a three-year contract in July as part of new general manager Brad Treliving's snarl-focused roster remake, suffered a knee injury Dec. 14.

A rocky start in Toronto had already seen him yo-yo in and out of the lineup with one goal and a minus-11 rating through 21 games. Now he had to sit for an extended period.

Reaves wouldn't see action again until Jan. 24 when the door finally swung back open.

Those six weeks of inaction helped turn the 37-year-old's season around.

“Used that as a mini training camp,” Reaves said. “I worked on everything that I could. I was doing two-, three-a-days (training sessions) sometimes.

“Just trying to get confidence back.”

One of the biggest personalities in the league and the owner of a million-dollar smile, it's hard to imagine the Winnipeg native's self-belief in tatters.

But there he was.

“Confidence is a real thing,” Reaves said. “First time I've probably gone through something like that in my career where I just felt like nothing was going right. I just felt like I had no confidence.

“Used that opportunity to try and build it back.”

He's since found a landing spot on Toronto's fourth line alongside David Kampf and Connor Dewar.

Reaves looks quicker, more engaged and has shown confidence with the puck. He's been in the right spots, which has allowed him to deliver punishing checks with his six-foot-two, 226-pound frame.

Just ask Lightning defencemen Victor Hedman and Matt Dumba after Wednesday.

“Compared to the beginning of season, it's been night and day,” said Reaves, whose contract carries a US$1.35-million average annual value through 2025-26.

“It's what they've expected out of me.”

Reaves, who also fought Tampa forward Tanner Jeannot on Wednesday, has been a hit off the ice, with his lighthearted demeanour a welcome addition to a locker room under a constant microscope in hockey's biggest media market.

“Great teammate,” Leafs star Auston Matthews said. “He's brought a lot of energy, a lot of positivity to the group. You see the impact he makes on the ice, the way he plays, his physicality, fighting.

“It's infectious.”

And while Reaves has rediscovered his game and made valuable contributions, it remains to be seen where he fits once the playoff start.

Post-season hockey is physical and intense - hallmarks of his game - but fights aren't usually part of the spring equation for a player averaging just over eight minutes of ice time.

Leafs forwards Mitch Marner and Calle Jarnkrok are working their way back from injuries. There are only so many spots up front to go around.

“Not a question for me,” Reaves, who has three goals and two assists in 44 games, said of where he fits in the playoffs. “I can only do what I can do - play physical and take care of my own end and get chances.

“That's above my pay grade.”

While those decisions will indeed be made in the coach's office, there's no doubt how the winger is viewed within the group.

“He has been flying,” Matthews said. “When he brings that physicality, when he makes those hits, and you can hear the crowd get going, it gets a lot of energy into the atmosphere on the bench. You can feel that throughout the team.

“Brings a big, positive momentum shift for us.”

No matter what happens when the post-season gets going in just over two weeks, Reaves is in a much better place.

“I'm glad that that's clicking,” he said. “I'm glad that the line's clicking. I'm playing more physical.

“I'm going to keep building on it, and hopefully bring that same energy into the playoffs.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 4, 2024.