By Greg Hudson
He began the season on the fourth line, fighting for ice time against the likes of Tanner Glass and Anthony Duclair.
Now, deep into a playoff run that has Rangers’ fans dreaming of Lord Stanley’s cup for the second time in as many years, Jesper Fast has cemented himself at the heart of the Rangers’ goal scoring machine.
It’s a machine that hasn’t been firing on all cylinders, and that’s why Fast has been so important. Top scorer Rick Nash was unable to follow up a fantastic regular season with an impressive series against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round, and an injury to Nash’s linemate Mats Zuccarello sidelined the Norwegian for the entirety of the Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Washington Capitals and left the Rangers in desperate need of a spark.
Coach Alain Vigneault reacted quickly, shaking up all four Rangers forward lines, opting to maintain balance than simply plug the hole left by Zuccarello. In doing so, he gave Fast, a hard-working but relatively unremarkable right winger, a promotion to the second line, skating with power forward Chris Kreider and sniping centerman Derek Stepan.
It took a few games for the system to start to work, and to the dismay of Rangers’ fans, those games saw the Blueshirts fall behind the Caps 3-1 in the series. With their playoff dreams hanging by a thread, the Rangers needed a spark in game five at Madison Square Garden. With the crowd behind them, the Rangers rallied in the third period and won the game in overtime, thanks to a pair of goals scored with the second line on the ice.
Wins in games six and in overtime in game seven saw the Rangers advance to face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the conference final, and Fast has been a huge part of that.
Since Zuccarello’s injury, seven of the Rangers’ 15 goals have come from the second line, and Fast has points on four of those goals including three assists. Compare that to his eight assists in 58 regular season games and it’s clear that his performance has stepped up with his promotion to playing alongside better linemates.
But Fast isn’t the only beneficiary of playing with Kreider and Stepan. Before Fast’s appointment to the line, Kreider did most of the hard work below the goal line, keeping the forecheck going in the corner to provide opportunities for Stepan and Martin St. Louis. But with Fast’s hard work and relentless pursuit of the puck both offensively and defensively, it frees Kreider to get in front of the net, enabling him to tandem with Stepan to great effect. The two have produced almost half of the Rangers’ goals since the start of the Washington series, and it shows no sign of stopping.
While the Rangers have their sights set directly on the Stanley Cup this year, looking forward, it’s feasible that Vigneault will keep Fast on the second line with Stepan and Kreider and utilize the dangerous but aging St. Louis in a different way as he looks to extend the career of a great player.
For Fast though, a permanent switch to the second line offers him the chance to make important contributions to the Rangers in the coming years – not to mention double his ice time – and with a hard worker like Fast on the ice with playmakers like Stepan and Kreider, the Rangers have the recipe for success not just in the playoffs this season, but for years to come.