By Sean Hartnett
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Jesper Fast might be overlooked by fans of rival teams and is seldom the focus of media attention, but Rangers teammates have a high appreciation for his work ethic, positional sense and penalty-killing prowess.
Prior to the Rangers earning a 3-2 home victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins in their regular season finale Sunday, the team announced Fast as the recipient of the 2016-17 Players’ Player Award. This is the second-straight season that Fast has been selected by teammates for “best exemplifying what it means to be a team player.”
As the Rangers prepare for a first-round playoff meeting with the Montreal Canadiens, the value provided by the 25-year-old right wing couldn’t be clearer. Since his 2013-14 rookie season, Fast has thrived through unremitting effort and savvy play across 200 feet of ice. While he isn’t a 20-goal talent, his steady play in the defensive end of the ice is an asset for the Rangers.
You will often see Fast pressure opponents into turnovers, cut off passing lanes and make skillful plays along the wall to help the Blueshirts escape their own end. This typically isn’t the kind of stuff that gets picked up on the highlight reel, but these traits add up to something big.
“He’s a team guy that plays very hard and consistent every night,” center Oscar Lindberg said. “He’s a guy you can watch and take after the way he plays. He definitely deserves (the award).”
Head coach Alain Vigneault has total trust in Fast, and it’s little wonder why he’s a true believer. With or without the puck, Fast is going to get into the right position and do all the little things that allow teammates to be more effective.
“He’s a real dedicated young man that competes every shift that he’s on the ice,” Vigneault said after Sunday’s victory. “You guys have seen him the last couple of years. He has a great team-first attitude. That’s what you want in a teammate and that’s what you want as a coach in a player.”
Vigneault will often point to the Swede’s ability to fill roles up and down the lineup – and those kind of players are exactly what a coach needs at their disposal come playoff time. Put Fast anywhere and he succeeds.
“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,” Vigneault said in March.
Fast finished the 2016-17 regular season with six goals and 15 assists in 68 games played. A shoulder injury suffered in late February seemed to disrupt his late-season production. He finished the season with just one point in his final nine games played and was held out of the final three contests due to an undisclosed injury.
Assuming Fast is fully healthy once the Rangers open the first round in Montreal on Wednesday night, fans keeping a close eye on the Rangers-Canadiens series should take note of how Vigneault deploys the winger against Montreal’s scoring lines.
Vigneault is going to lean hard on Fast to help shut down Montreal’s star men, including 67-point captain Max Pacioretty, Alexander Radulov, Alex Galchenyuk and cannon-shooting defenseman Shea Weber. No defenseman in the NHL recorded more power-play goals than Weber’s 12.
Everything gets magnified during the playoffs. You’re going to see just how valuable Fast is – shift-by-shift, game-by-game and, if the Rangers get clicking, series after series.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey