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Rangers' Fast making smart plays to be X-factor

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- It was the morning of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Second Round series against the Washington Capitals when New York Rangers center Derek Stepan was answering a question about right wing Jesper Fast.

"He seems to be on pucks really fast," Stepan said of his linemate. "He anticipates well and he's made some big plays when he's had the puck on his stick."

Call Stepan clairvoyant if you want to, because he might as well have been describing Fast's impact on Stepan's overtime goal hours later, which sent the Rangers into the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Fast didn't get on the score sheet with an assist because the NHL doesn't give out three of them on a goal, but he did everything Stepan described to help set up the winner Wednesday night.

The faceoff in the right circle was tied up by Stepan and Washington's Eric Fehr. The puck barely moved after the linesman dropped it between the centers. It was in the middle of the red dot, up for grabs until Fast darted in from the left side.

Fast beat everyone to the puck and chipped it back to defenseman Keith Yandle, who moved it quickly to defenseman Dan Girardi. He unleashed a one-timer from inside the blue line that hit something in front and bounced to Stepan in the right circle for a slam-dunk, put-back goal.

"I try to make the right plays," Fast said.

Fast, a rookie who had 14 points in 58 regular-season games, has been making the right plays a lot of the time so far in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, so much so coach Alain Vigneault promoted him from the fourth line to the second line.

Fast played the first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins on the fourth line with Tanner Glass and Dominic Moore. It was arguably the Rangers' most effective line in terms of generating possession time and winning battles on the forecheck.

Fast started the series against Washington on the third line with Kevin Hayes and Carl Hagelin because Mats Zuccarello's upper-body injury required Vigneault to tinker with the lineup. By the midpoint of the series Fast was up with Kreider and Stepan, playing important minutes against Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.

Fast said his confidence grew with each promotion.

"And you grow with that," he said. "I'm trying to enjoy the opportunity and do my best with it."

Vigneault will keep Fast with Kreider and Stepan in Game 1 against the Lightning on Saturday at Madison Square Garden (1 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports). They might get matched up against the Lightning line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov, who have combined for 31 points in the playoffs.

"There's no doubt that since I put that line (Kreider-Stepan-Fast) together it's been very effective against the other team's good players," Vigneault said.

A big reason for that is Fast, who created the turnover that led to defenseman Ryan McDonagh's overtime goal in Game 5 against Washington.

As usual, Fast was in the right place to make a play. He had good enough hand-eye coordination to knock down Curtis Glencross' pass in the neutral zone, took the puck into the offensive zone, feathered a pass across the ice to Stepan, who faked a shot and passed it back to McDonagh for a one-timer that beat goalie Braden Holtby.

Fast got an assist on that play, and had one on the Rangers' first goal in Game 6, when he noticed Kreider ready to bust out of the zone and smartly chipped the puck up the ice and off the right-wing wall, letting Kreider chase it down and go in 1-on-1 against defenseman Matt Niskanen.

Jesper Fast
Right Wing - NYR
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 3 | PTS: 4
SOG: 12 | +/-: -1
"That's his game," Kreider said. "He does do a lot of little things, a lot of detail oriented hockey. He's a workhorse too. He's always churning, always moving his legs. He's so smart and consistent and responsible defensively."

It's plays like the ones he made on the goals by McDonagh, Kreider and Stepan in Games 5, 6, and 7 against Washington that have allowed Fast to have the confidence to know he will be a difference-maker in games instead of just believing he can be.

"You want to be out there when the game is on the line to make the difference," Fast said. "Now with more confidence out there I feel I can be in that position to make a difference, so I go into the game thinking I can help the team win."

The Rangers need Fast to do that against the Lightning. Simple, small, smart plays could decide a series between teams that might as well be mirror images of each other in terms of playing fast, with the puck, and creating turnovers off the forecheck.

"He's got tremendous hockey sense, both defensively and offensively," Vigneault said. "He can read the game real well. And he works like an SOB. He works and he works and he works. He just doesn't stop. That makes him a real effective player."

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