EDMONTON, Alberta — Ryan Reaves stood in the tunnel outside the locker room, fist-bumping his Vegas teammates as they marched to the ice.
Instead of skates, pads and a jersey, his uniform was made up of jeans, a sweater over top of a button-down shirt and dress shoes.
Reaves then took his spot in the stands, mask on, to watch the start of the Western Conference final. With Reaves suspended for an illegal check to the head last round, the Vegas Golden Knights lost Game 1 to the Dallas Stars in the kind of all-out, physical game that fits his style perfectly.
Coach Peter DeBoer insists missing Reaves wasn’t the reason his team lost, but getting the 6-foot-2, 225-pound enforcer back for Game 2 Tuesday is exactly what Vegas needs against a difficult Dallas opponent in a rough and tumble series.
”Having him back, he’s an important part of our team,” DeBoer said Monday. ”Everyone knows what Ryan Reaves brings. He brings physicality, but he brings energy to our group, too, and he creates a certain amount of room for people on the ice. He’s a big piece of our group.”
Even while not excusing Reaves for the hit to the head of Vancouver’s Tyler Motte that drew the one-game suspension, DeBoer defended him for having a clean record and showing an incredible amount of restraint for a player of his size. Reaves has only taken two minor penalties this postseason and is well-respected by teammates for being willing to stand up for them.
But Reaves didn’t earn a full-time lineup spot two years after being a part-timer during the Golden Knights’ run to the Stanley Cup Final just because he’s an intimidating presence. He’s averaging five hits a game, many of which are important for Vegas to get into its style of game.
”Ryan brings a lot to our team: a lot of energy, a lot of juice for us,” defenseman Brayden McNabb said ”Obviously he’s physical, and they’re a heavier team, so having him back in the lineup’s going to be a huge bonus for us and a lot more energy coming from him. If he can get in the forecheck, get some hits, it’s big momentum for our team.”
Reaves will fit right in against the Stars, who dished out 49 hits and absorbed 47 in winning Game 1 Sunday 1-0. Dallas put up a lot of goals last round against Colorado, but its preferred brand of hockey is tight-checking, defensive and predicated on punishing opponents with heavy and frequent contact.
”It’s just fun,” Stars forward Jason Dickinson said. ”I think we’ve got a lot of big guys that play with a lot of edge and a lot of intensity that in order for them to play at their best, they have to be hitting and they have to be on the body because it creates energy for themselves and a little bit more emotion, which often elevates other elements of your game.”
That’s a perfect descriptor for Reaves, though he’s not going to turn the series around by himself. An added benefit: Getting him back might lead DeBoer to start Game 2 with his fourth line so that Vegas can dictate the physical play.
So far, that edge goes to the Stars, who are plenty ready to keep it up all series.
”They’re going to take hits and eventually, that’s going to wear them down,” coach Rick Bowness said. ”It’s another series that has very, very little separating the teams. A puck bounce here or there is going to decide it.”