By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns
Eternally underrated winger Jesper Fast is the epitome of a glue player.
The 25-year-old Swede provides the Rangers with 14 minutes on average of pure hustle and intelligent, selfless play across 200 feet of ice every game.
There was concern that Fast would miss significant time after Alex Ovechkin plastered him shoulder-first into the glass during the third period of Tuesday's 4-1 defeat to rival Washington Capitals at MSG. Fortunately for the Rangers, he is only expected to miss two-to-three weeks with what the team is describing as an upper-body injury.
Fast is one of the Blueshirts' best penalty killers, averaging 1:33 per game, so his short-term absence will be a challenge for the Rangers' top man-down unit. A big part of his game is his defensive zone shine. Not only is he bursting with constant energy, Fast often makes skillful plays along the wall to help the Rangers get out of the defensive end.
"There's no doubt he's a big part of our penalty killing and a guy that we can slot from the fourth line to the top line, depending on who we're playing," head coach Alain Vigneault told reporters on Wednesday. "He's a competitive player. Obviously, it's a loss for us. But it's an opportunity for some other guys who've been wanting to play, wanting to take a role, to step up and get the job done for us."
Through 63 games, the Rangers rank 16th overall (80.8 percent) on the kill. They have not allowed a power play goal in 10 of the last 18 games and are tied for the league lead with eight shorthanded goals.
Every Rangers fan knows that Fast has earned the full trust of Vigneault, who affectionately refers to the 6-foot winger as "Quickie." Fast has recorded 20 points, including 15 assists, in 59 games this season. More than traditional stats bear out, he has struck up excellent chemistry with Oscar Lindberg and the various left wingers Vigneault has slotted in and out of the lineup on a fourth line that regularly establishes offensive zone time and finishes off fancy goal-scoring plays.
"He's got tremendous hockey sense, both defensively and offensively," Vigneault once said of Fast. "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 makes him a really effective player. I have so much faith and confidence when he is on the ice. 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."
While Fast is sidelined, Matt Puempel and Brandon Pirri will get chances to make their respective cases for increased roles. Both forwards have seen inconsistent ice time of late and need to rediscover their scoring touch. They are each riding a six-game goalless drought.
Though Fast will never be confused with a goal poacher, his game is steady night after night. Some fans might take him for granted, but this team and this coach understand how valuable his presence is.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey
for more features.