WINNIPEG – Near the end of the first period on Saturday, after Ryan Reaves had knocked Winnipeg Jets’ captain Blake Wheeler into the Vegas Golden Knights’ bench like a bear ejecting a flea, the fourth-line forward tried his luck against Dustin Byfuglien.
Byfuglien, like many of the world’s giant peaks, has his own weather system. The Winnipeg defenceman is listed at 260 pounds, but Reaves figures Byfuglien is at least 10-15 pounds heavier than that.
Turned out Reaves could not move a mountain, but the collision was still felt everywhere from Thunder Bay to Regina.
“That was two brick walls hitting each other,” Reaves, who weighs 225 pounds, told reporters a day later.
Reaves’ linemate, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, described it as “two big towers going at each other, and the entire rink is shaking. So that’s fun.”
Actually, it was kind of. Typically, you see creatures that big butting chests only on National Geographic. Usually during mating season.
The Stanley Cup playoffs are not mating season.
Truly unlike any other player in the National Hockey League, Byfuglien was in vintage form, scoring one goal and setting up another, drifting up ice to join the attack, and using his girth and brute strength to bounce away opponents during Winnipeg’s 4-2 win in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final.
Vegas winger Alex Tuch, who is merely six-foot-four and 222 pounds, took a run at Byfuglien and ricocheted off him like a spitball.
When he is on his game, Byfuglien is one of the most impactful players in the NHL. He’s probably the strongest, too.
“I’m the strongest player in the league,” Reaves said.
OK, then Byfuglien’s the second strongest.
“Yeah, he might be,” Reaves allowed.
For most of the playoffs, Reaves relied only on his mental strength. He was a healthy scratch in the until Vegas coach Gerard Gallant put him into the lineup for the Knights’ second-round series-clinching win against the San Jose Sharks on Monday.
But if Reaves stays in the Vegas lineup, he has a chance to make an impact against a big, powerful Jets team that is epitomized by Byfuglien.
“They still have the speed of a lot of these good teams,” Reaves said of the Jets. “But I think they bring a little more size, a little more physical play. In a seven-game series, it’s going to wear you down if you don’t counter it.”
Reaves can counter it.
He is, of course, the son of Winnipeg Blue Bomber legend Willard Reaves, the running back from Flagstaff, Ariz., who won the Canadian Football League’s Most Outstanding Player Award in 1984 and six years later settled his family back in Winnipeg and started a second career as a Manitoba sheriff.
Winnipeg is Ryan Reaves’ home.
He played minor hockey for the Winnipeg Junior Jets, and was nine years old when the original NHL Jets moved to Phoenix. Reaves remembers seeing the Colorado Avalanche play the Jets and falling in love with the visiting team.
“I was a big Patrick Roy fan,” he said.
Everyone is playing for the Stanley Cup. But Reaves is playing for something more: his livelihood.
Traded twice in the last year, Reaves is a 31-year-old unrestricted free agent this summer and admits to feeling like an endangered species.
When he broke into the NHL eight years ago, almost every team had a player like Reaves – a fearsome fourth-line guy who played single-digit minutes, threw hits and fought the other team’s “enforcer.”
Those players are nearly extinct. The game has become faster, more skilled, better.
Between the NHL and American League, Reaves fought 20 times in 2010-11. This season, he had six fights – all before Christmas with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who traded Reaves to the Knights in February for minor-league prospect Tobias Lindberg.
Reaves has had to adapt. He is still adapting.
“For a couple of summers, all I did was box, sit in the gym and throw weights around so I could fight 250-pound guys,” Reaves said. “And those guys are gone, so now I’ve got to get a little quicker, I’ve got to add a little skill to my game. You’ve got to be able to play and not take penalties, and contribute and play responsible D. Yeah, over eight years, I’ve had to adjust quite a bit.”
In 21 games with Vegas at the end of the regular season, the winger collected only 10 penalty minutes, and earned 9:55 of nightly ice time until he fell out of Gallant’s lineup when the playoffs began.
“It was on me,” Reaves said. “The last three weeks, I wasn’t playing good hockey. I dealt with some things the wrong way that I probably should have dealt with differently. I just wasn’t playing good. You’ve got to put the best lineup on the ice; I understood that.”
Pressed about what he should have handled differently, he said: “Bumps, bruises, different things.”
Bellemare, who said his own late-starting NHL career as a fourth-liner would not have been possible had the NHL not evolved away from fighting, said he appreciates how Reaves has changed and improved his game.
“I’ve met so many players that tell you: ‘I can’t change, I’m too old,’” Bellemare said. “It’s not about yourself. It’s about what you’re ready to sacrifice to be part of a team. He did all of that.”
On a team of castoffs, built largely on an expansion draft last June, Reaves is like everyone else: trying to prove he can play and that those who think he can’t are wrong.
“This whole team was built on adversity,” he said. “I expect our best game starting from puck drop tomorrow.”
Game 2 is Monday.