By Sean Hartnett
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Blending hard work and intelligence in all three zones, Jesper Fast has long won admiration from pockets of the Rangers' fan base.
Like alternative rockers R.E.M. during the mid-1980s, Fast has maintained a dedicated cult following, but appears poised to explode into the mainstream. "Document," released in 1987, was the album that launched R.E.M. from college scene favorites to platinum sellers – and 2016 might be the year when more mainstream hockey fans take notice of Fast's importance to the Rangers.
Championing the cause like a college DJ has been head coach Alain Vigneault. The 54-year-old's eyes have seen a lot of effective players hop onto the ice over the years, but he says he continues to be impressed by Fast's game, especially his decision making with and without the puck in all areas.
"I have so much faith and confidence when he is on the ice," Vigneault said after Thursday's 4-2 victory over the Minnesota Wild. "I know that defensively he is going to be in the right position and I know that with the puck he is going to make the right play. We see this young player here growing and getting better every game. I really have a lot of confidence when he is on the ice."
With star winger Rick Nash sidelined since Jan. 22. due to a left leg bone bruise, Fast has been receiving top-six minutes, mostly on a line with Derick Brassard and the red-hot J.T. Miller.
"I love playing with that guy," Brassard said of Fast. "He does everything well. You know what to expect from him. He doesn't cheat, he goes right through you and he's got some offense in him."
Fast's offensive game is growing and he's making the most of his increased minutes. He has collected four assists in four games, recording a plus-7 rating over this stretch.
It all starts with his unquenchable work ethic. There isn't an off switch on Fast's motor. Like Mats Zuccarello, he's an energetic winger who plays larger than his size and wins his fair share of puck races.
"He's got tremendous hockey sense – both defensively and offensively," Vigneault said during last season's playoffs. "He can read the game really well and he works like an SOB. He works and he works and he works. He just doesn't stop, and that's what makes him a really effective player."
Keith Yandle rightfully grabbed the headlines for forcing overtime in Saturday's 3-2 victory over the rival Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center, but it was Fast who provided the assist on Yandle's one-timed blast.
Whether subtle or noticeable, the thing with Fast is he's making a lot of important plays on the ice. He's doing a lot of high-impact things for the Rangers five-on-five, on the penalty kill and is being leaned on by Vigneault in pressure moments.
It's time the rest of the hockey world perks up and notices.
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