The New York Rangers inched one game closer to their second Stanley Cup appearance in the last two years on Saturday after a 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Blueshirts got off to a 1-0 lead with a late goal in the first period after Derek Stepan scored his fourth goal of the playoffs, his second in his last two games played.
The pivot scored the Rangers’ overtime winner in Game 7 against the Washington Capitals, and it is a moment that will be remembered with fondness if New York can end its 21-year Cup drought. Much has been made of the Game 7 goal, and rightly so, but it wouldn’t have happened or mattered unless an unsung hero made a play in Game 5.
Jesper Fast was pivotal for the Rangers in the must-win Game 5, and he was also the player who started the sequence that resulted in Stepan’s goal. The 23-year-old from Nassjo, Sweden was drafted 157th overall in 2010, and over the last few weeks he has emerged as a big-time player.
Mats Zuccarello was injured after taking a shot off the side of his helmet in the first round, and that left a big hole in the Blueshirts’ lineup. Head coach Alain Vigneault didn’t have many options at his disposal, so he decided to throw “Quickie” on a line with Stepan and noted “goalie killer” Chris Kreider.
At first the move was a puzzling one, because Fast isn’t known for his offense. He is known for his speed, hence the last name, and he even dropped the “h” from his last name to emphasize his penchant for getting from point A to B in the most efficient way possible.
In addition to playing a quick game in transition, Fast is a quality defensive forward who plays a heavy game for his size. For the majority of the 2014-15 season, Fast made a name for himself as a penalty killer in the bottom six. He averaged 1:06 a game on the penalty kill, and 11:48 overall. During the 2014-15 playoffs Fast has averaged 14:18 a game, and the bump has been well deserved.
The 6’0″, 185-pounder is no slouch when it comes to throwing the body, and his ability to play in the dirtier areas of the ice has enabled Kreider and Stepan to get into positions to score. A prime example of this came in the aforementioned Game 5 against the Washington Capitals.
As you can see above, Fast is waiting to see what Evgeny Kuznetsov is going to do with the puck. The Rangers were in the process of making a line change, but he stays on and sets up in the zone.
At this point the Rangers have the puck, but three men are behind the play leaving Fast to take the puck up the ice. As the below video will show, Fast moves along the boards and makes a beautiful pass to Stepan who proceeds to put it on a tee for Ryan McDonagh.
It was a beautiful play that came together because a classic two-way forward made a smart play in the neutral zone, and he put the puck on the stick of an offensive minded player. Many can look at this play and say that every squirrel finds an acorn now and then, but this is a case where Fast was finally getting credit for doing all the little things right, AKA Rick Nash syndrome.
This continued in Game 7, and the below video will show Fast’s mastery after Stepan wins the faceoff.
After watching the video a number of times, you will notice that Fast’s work moving the puck back to Yandle allows Stepan to swing to the side of the net. It is a subtle and simple play, but one that proved to be huge for the Rangers.
These moves were vital reasons why the Rangers were involved in a game with the Lightning, and that leads to Fast’s unsung moment in Game 1 on Saturday.
The clock was winding down in the period and the Rangers had possession of the puck. McDonagh’s initial shot bounces off Bishop and Fast attempts to coral the rebound.
In the process he boxes out Jason Garrison, and draws Andrej Sustr to come toward him. This allows Kreider to scoop up the puck, fire off a shot and it left a juicy rebound which was deposited by Stepan. The goal was huge for the Rangers, and it rewarded them for a first period in which they dominated the Lightning.
A player like Fast may never win a major individual trophy because he doesn’t have the pedigree to be a league leader, but he has the chance to be a key cog on a Stanley Cup championship team. He’s very similar in style to Ruslan Fedotenko sans offensive upside, and it is funny that the two-time Stanley Cup champion played for both Eastern Conference finalists.
Right now Fast has more than exceeded expectations, because it is unlikely that anyone in the Rangers’ organization thought the former sixth rounder would be playing a vital role on a team poised to return to New York’s “Canyon of Heroes”