He didn’t record one shot. He was without an attempt. He didn’t just miss with a scoring chance or strike one off the iron. He never led his team out in transition, nor did he crash the crease to create a rebound opportunity on the doorstep. It didn’t seem that the puck was ever on his stick in a threatening position in almost 10 minutes of ice time, which went loosely controlled by the opposition.
For what had been an anemic attack in recent games for the Vegas Golden Knights, Ryan Reaves didn’t provide a single solitary thing. Yet, in his return from a one-game suspension after a nasty headshot on Vancouver’s Tyler Motte for Game 2 of the Western Conference final on Tuesday night, he helped make the difference for a team that seemed to reclaim its championship-calibre form.
There was a time not too long ago when every team selected at least one player that fit the Reaves mould. Not prioritized for things like speed, skill, offensive instincts or defensive acumen, instead they were caretakers, responsible for protecting stars, policing of the game, and clashing with their counterparts in the very strange ways that the situation sometimes called for it. These were fighters, mostly. And while the weapons that carried the most influence were their fists, the best ones could demonstrate their power on the ice through various means, be it with punishing forechecks, heavy and opportunistic body contact, or verbal assaults on the opposition.
What they did, however they did it, left them revered by their teammates.
Nowadays, as the game and species have evolved, it’s not enough to own a single dimension. Rosters are saturated with athletes mainly focused on the elements more closely associated with the process of scoring and preventing goals. While it can still be nasty, the game within the game isn’t contested with the same regularity, and for that reason alone there’s no longer a need for the caretaker. Dressing one almost always puts a team at a disadvantage, in fact, because there’s normally no dance partner on the other side.
"Just try to ignore him I guess."
- Jamie Benn of @DallasStars, after a lengthy question about how to handle a big hitter like @GoldenKnights Ryan Reaves without the benefit of an enforcer, because the NHL has changed and the Stars don't have an enforcer on their team anymore.
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) September 9, 2020
It’s a role that has, for the most part, become extinct. But Ryan Reaves, he’s managed to endure — mostly because he’s that single-dimensional player who has every dimension.
Like the Vancouver Canucks, and the Chicago Blackhawks before them, it seems the Stars are without a single player willing to exchange punches with Reaves, unless absolutely forced into it. In fact, just three players in 88 games all season have made the conscious decision to test their chin against the Golden Knights heavyweight, and one can only assume it didn’t turn out so well.
Being the toughest kid on the playground presents Reaves with many virtues. This is a player who’s essentially untouchable. But more important than that, he’s fully aware of it, and it’s that knowledge that leaves him free to do and say anything without the fear of retribution.
Reaves uses this power to set and re-establish the tone of the game, always favourable to the Golden Knights. This self-regulating process begins from the very moment the puck is dropped, as it’s the fourth line that begins games and periods for head coach Peter DeBoer as a means to influence each of the remaining shifts before the next buzzer sounds and they start again.
To DeBoer, it was no surprise then that the Golden Knights did not repeat their costly start to Game 1 with Reaves back from suspension and around to eat up the first interval with linemates Tomas Nosek and William Carrier.
“They’re ready to play. They’re ready to play an hour before the puck drops. And when the puck drops, you’re just opening the gate, and they’re going,” DeBoer said after the 3-0 win in Game 2. “I don’t think it’s an accident that we didn’t start them in (Game 1), and we didn’t have a great start.”
A better start set the table for a far more improved overall team performance in the second game of the series. Vegas was more physical, more deliberate with its attack, forced the Stars into more mistakes, and protected the puck far more efficiently.
The Golden Knights were, to put it simply, themselves. And that presence is something Reaves contributes heavily to, and what Nick Cousins can’t recreate with his best impression of his teammate.
But credit to him for trying.
While it was mostly an opportunity for the opposing netminders — in this case Anton Khudobin and Jake Oettinger — to catch their breath when Reaves and the fourth line were out on the ice, it isn’t to say that there weren’t individual moments in which Reaves served a valuable purpose.
The heaviest of the 21 hits landed by the fourth line was Reaves’ crushing blow on Mattias Janmark. He also drew a penalty three minutes into the game when John Klingberg threw an illegal check as the fourth line steamed in with purpose on the forecheck. There was also a moment in the second period when Joe Pavelski took a whack at his counterpart in the faceoff circle, and Reaves cut him down in size by daring him to do the same when he stepped in to take the draw himself.
Reaves fits a lot into 10 minutes, even without threatening from an offensive standpoint. But what makes Reaves, Reaves, is the fact that while he’s only seeing a minute here and there and at the start of periods, he’s heard from incessantly.
Reaves is the catalyst of the most vocal, most verbally vicious team that showed up at either of the bubbles this summer. Emboldened by their teammate, the Golden Knights, to a man, do not stop talking. Reaves himself considers no one off limits, having chirped at opposing coaches, while constantly going after the opposing team’s netminders like he did with Khudobin at the end of the second period in Tuesday’s win.
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) September 9, 2020
How much the constant verbal barrage has an effect on the competition is, well, up to the competition. But pairing sharp, quick wit — as opposed to neanderthalic grunting — with that unrivalled toughness allows Reaves to have an impact for 60 minutes instead of the few shifts he’s limited to each period.
With the ability to contribute on the ice, from the bench, while using his presence to allow the team to establish its tread, everything that an effective enforcer has used historically to offer value to a team, Reaves has it.
He’s the center of attention, the purveyor of taunts, a source of bravado, the one who his teammates seem to be always striving to impress. He makes them bigger, he makes them louder, he allows the Golden Knights to settle into the best version of themselves.
It should be no surprise, then, how discernible it is that he’s loved and appreciated inside the room and on the Golden Knights bench. And there’s power in that, too.
Only the strongest will survive, which is why it’s fitting that Reaves is the last of the enforcers.
And that with Reaves, the Golden Knights have just as good a chance as anyone to be that last team standing in the end.
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