Canes’ overtime hero Fast reminds Rangers what they’re missing in series win over Devils

There was a moment earlier in last night’s game where Jesper Fast had a sure goal on his stick. With the Hurricanes trailing the Devils 1-0 on a Dawson Mercer goal perfectly set up by Timo Meier, they nearly tied it when Paul Stastny passed to a wide open Fast in front, only for him to fan on his shot.

On the close call, Devils rookie Akira Schmid was dead to rights. He had to get over for Stastny, who could’ve shot. That left Fast by himself. However, he was unable to get good wood on the puck, sending it over the net with Schmid scrambling back.

Sometimes, you get a reprieve. When it comes to Fast, the gritty right wing has always worked his tail off. From the time he was drafted by the Rangers in the sixth round in 2010, the Swede has brought a consistent work ethic to the rink. To hear former Rangers’ teammate Henrik Lundqvist tell it, nobody worked harder. It isn’t a surprise.

For over six years, including finishing the 2013-14 season on a team that reached the Stanley Cup Finals, Fast spent the first part of his career on Broadway. Never the most skilled, he was successful due to the combination of speed and determination he played with. An honest player who former coaches Alain Vigneault and David Quinn loved plugging up and down the lineup, his energy rubbed off on teammates.

It was the hustle of Fast that led to Ryan McDonagh scoring in overtime to beat the Capitals in Game Five of the 2015 Eastern Conference Semifinals. That kept alive the season, allowing the Rangers to rally back from a 3-1 series deficit to win a riveting second round on Derek Stepan’s OT winner. Another play where Fast was involved off a face-off by moving the puck back for Keith Yandle, who got it over for a Dan Girardi shot that Stepan rebounded home.

That’s the kind of player Fast is. He can win puck battles. That’s important during the playoffs. Technically speaking, he’s participated in the postseason eight times. It was an injury early in the Stanley Cup Qualifying Series against the Hurricanes that hurt the Rangers in the 2020 bubble. He was the right wing on a dynamic line with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome. Panarin preferred playing with him because he created space. It’s no wonder the Bread Man was so successful in his first year in Manhattan.

Following the Canes ousting the Rangers in three straight, Fast wanted a third year included when he was an unrestricted free agent. The Rangers weren’t willing to go there. The Hurricanes were. They knew Fast could help them. So, he signed for three years at a very affordable $2 million Cao hit. Sounds pretty reasonable. Not when it came to the old regime. Jeff Gorton and John Davidson miscalculated by letting a high character player like Fast go.

In a salary cap world where teams must proceed with caution when it comes to spending, the Rangers invested a combined $19.6 million on Panarin and Jacob Trouba. At that moment, the rebuild was over. The rest is history. It isn’t worth repeating when you see the cap crunch they face this off-season. One which came sooner than expected due to those Devils, who ousted the Rangers in seven games last round. That cost Gerard Gallant his job.

When you look at what the roster lacked, it certainly didn’t have enough hard-working players who could win those key battles in the corners. They overpaid Barclay Goodrow to play as a checking forward that can kill penalties. Wouldn’t it have made sense to keep Fast? A player who can play anywhere. Similar to how Goodrow was used in his first season as a Ranger.

Instead, Fast has been busy helping the Canes advance past the Islanders and Devils to reach the Eastern Conference Final. It’ll be the third time in his career he’s made it that far. He got rewarded in last night’s 3-2 win in Game Five.

On the second half of a power play due to Jonas Siegenthaler taking a delay of game minor penalty in overtime, Fast parked himself in front of Schmid. Jesperi Kotkaniemi took a shot that Fast deflected in for the series clincher at 7:09 of overtime. He was able to convert his second scoring chance by doing what he does. Going to the net and getting a garbage goal.

In this postseason, Fast has five goals. Two have come in overtime. One against the Islanders. Now, one against the Devils that ended their season. Now 31, he plays a checking role for coach Rod Brind’Amour. In a smart move that worked, Brind’Amour opted to have Kotkaniemi center Fast and series hero Jordan Martinook. A change that allowed Jordan Staal to move up to the second line to match up against Jack Hughes.

It was the play of the third line that had an impact in the second round. Martinook tied a Canes’ playoff record by recording 10 points in the series. Another gritty player who brings speed and tenacity, he could’ve been had by any team. The Canes placed him on waivers at the beginning of the season. Little did they know that Andrei Svechnikov, Teuvo Teravainen, and Max Pacioretty would not be available at this stage.

The trio of Kotkaniemi, Martinook, and Fast were instrumental in Carolina’s five-game series win over New Jersey. They were effective and productive. Perhaps the diligent checking was a stark contrast for the Devils, who didn’t have to worry about match-ups against the Rangers.

Hughes had to deal with the battle-tested Staal for most of the second round. He still wound up with six points but finished a minus-four in the series. He played through an injury last night. He still helped set up Meier on the power play to give the Devils their second lead. Had Meier been able to hit an open net on another Hughes feed during a crucial part of the second period, we might be talking about Game Six. That miss will haunt Meier all summer.

Despite the Devils dominating play with 12 of the last 13 shots, they were unable to increase their lead. Ironically, Meier had his best game of the postseason. He made a great pass for a Mercer finish at the doorstep in transition for the game’s first goal. A play started by Mike McLeod, who was arguably the Devils’ best player in the series. The checking center had four points while making several key defensive plays. He’ll certainly get a bump up from the $1 million salary he made. He’s a restricted free agent this summer.

Meier added his second goal of the postseason by scoring a garbage goal on the power play. He was in front of Frederik Andersen when a Dougie Hamilton shot rebounded to him. That allowed Meier to squeak it through to give him a goal and assist. Had he buried the great Hughes pass after McLeod made a good pass himself to create a three-on-one down low, it’s 3-1 Devils. That close to a two-goal lead.

It happens. How many times did Strome miss on wide open chances with the net yawning? He certainly took a beating in the Big Apple. But the Rangers were a better team with him. Some fans are forgetful and unforgiving. Unless you’re on the ice like the players are, you don’t know what they’re feeling in that frustrating moment.

The good news for Meier is that he’ll likely re-sign with the Devils as a Group II free agent. A year away from unrestricted status, the power forward has a $10 million qualifier. Considering what the Devils gave up to get him, my guess is they’ll look to lock him up. If they go that route, it’s possible Jesper Bratt could become available. He is due a significant raise. However, his playoffs weren’t good enough. Not that Meier was much better. But you noticed him due to his big hits. They’re different style players.

If one were to assess the difference in last night’s game, it was the Canes’ ability to score when they needed to. Following a good first period by the Devils that saw them take the lead into the locker room, the Canes quickly struck 50 seconds into the second when Jaccob Slavin had his long point shot go through traffic and beat Schmid.

The Hurricanes then had a storm surge. They would get the first eight shots of the period. Like Hasan said in his excellent piece on what was a breakthrough season for the Devils, it looked like the Canes would blow the doors off them. However, Schmid made some good saves. He also had some help from both McLeod and Luke Hughes. Each had key blocks that prevented goals.

Hockey is a funny game. Momentum can swing at any moment. Curtis Lazar drew a reaction penalty when Kotkaniemi went off for roughing. Eight seconds later, the Devils went back ahead. Hughes passed the puck for a simple Hamilton shot that went off Andersen, allowing Meier to put home the rebound. Outside of Ondrej Palat, converting on a five-on-four during an extended power play in a blowout win during Game Three, that was the second power play goal of the series for the Devils. That was the only penalty of the game on the Canes.

If there was a big difference between the teams, it was the Hurricanes’ ability to apply pressure on the Devils in their end. There were too many times when they coughed up pucks. It happened in the final minute of the second period. A turnover turned into chaos. That allowed Brent Burns to get to a loose puck and beat Schmid through traffic for a backbreaking tying goal with 38 seconds remaining.

Astonishingly, the Canes almost went ahead on the next shift. But Fast’s pass for a Kotkaniemi tip try went wide. That describes what happens when Carolina scores a goal at home. They feed off the crowd’s energy. It’s like a tidal wave. They become a different team.

Of all the Devils last night, Luke Hughes was very noticeable on the back end. After a nightmarish Game Four that saw him and Damon Severson victimized, the 19-year-old defenseman had an impressive game. He took 35 shifts and logged 25:02 of ice time. Unlike the last game, he spent most of his shifts with John Marino. A steady player who doesn’t make many mistakes.

Hughes made some good reads during the game. He was aggressive, firing four shots on goal in five attempts. One play that stood out was an interception of a pass that allowed the speedy Hughes to transition and test Andersen from distance. It was exactly the kind of skilled play the former 2021 first round pick is capable of. He was also better defensively, making two blocks.

In a tie game, the younger Hughes tried to beat Andersen from a tough angle. He fired a high riser that the Carolina netminder made a tough save on. It looked like he was trying to either go high short side or bank the puck in. It was a smart play.

Unlike the end of regulation, when the Hurricanes stormed the Devils net, both teams went for it in sudden death. After Meier missed on a wrap-around, Siegenthaler had a great opportunity to play the hero. Bratt pulled up and found a cutting Siegenthaler in a similar area to where he scored against the Rangers last round. But a diving Sebastian Aho made a crucial block to deny the bid.

Ryan Graves had a good chance to end it. However, his long point shot was stopped by Andersen. On the other side, Schmid made tough saves on Martin Necas and Martinook. In a losing effort, he made 36 saves on 39 shots. The 23-year-old turned in a good performance following being chased earlier in the series.

Unfortunately, Tomas Tatar made one of those back passes back into his zone. Then Siegenthaler tried to clear the puck but sent it directly out for the irksome delay of game minor. It’s one of those penalties you hate to see decide a game. It happened to the Sabres once when Brind’Amour was a player in 2006. Brian Campbell airmailed a puck out. Brind’Amour scored the overtime winner. The Hurricanes went all the way to the Stanley Cup.

Now, he coaches them. They’ve had some good teams. When Shayne Gostisbehere got the puck over for a Kotkaniemi shot, it went in off Fast, who did the dirty work. His goal at 7:09 of the first overtime allowed the Hurricanes to celebrate.

They’re back in the Conference Finals for the first time since 2019. That was the first season Brind’Amour took over behind the bench. They’ve never missed the playoffs since. They’re there due to the system they play under the coach. A guy who emphasizes strong puck possession at five-on-five and tight defense in the neutral zone.

It helps to have a Jaccob Slavin anchoring the blue line. He was a plus-12 in the series, putting up a goal and three assists. The defensive defenseman doesn’t get enough credit for how good he is. Just ask Hamilton. He was ineffective against his former team, only putting up an assist in last night’s elimination game. He struggled mightily in the series, winding up a minus-10. That can’t happen again for a player who has a hefty $9 million cap hit.

For the Devils, they have an interesting off-season ahead. Team President and GM Tom Fitzgerald must make tough decisions on both Bratt and Meier. They have plenty of cap space. However, the cost for those two players alone could be a combined $17 million. With both Graves and first round hero Erik Haula unrestricted, Fitzgerald has his work cut out. Haula sounded like he wanted to return.

It was likely the final games for Miles Wood and Severson. Both will probably leave via free agency.

Tomas Tatar certainly had a good season. He is also a free agent this summer. Mackenzie Blackwood is likely to find a new team. He’s restricted. The Devils can either trade him or not offer him a contract. He’s a year from unrestricted status. Clearly, the odd man out behind Schmid and Vitek Vanecek, who might need a sports therapist after the postseason, Blackwood needs a fresh start.

The Devils also have Nathan Bastian, Yegor Sharangovich, and Jesper Boqvist as RFA’s. They’re sure to have a different roster. But the pieces are in place. They have a bright future. With the likely arrival of Simon Nemec and Luke Hughes, the defense could have a very different look.

Lindy Ruff deserves an extension. He did a great job with this team. From hearing the boos and “Fire Lindy” chants after a blowout loss in the second game of the season, he turned it around. Ruff wasn’t shy about changing it up. If that meant benching a player to spark the team, he did it. His key adjustments allowed the Devils to come back and defeat the Rangers in the first round.

Ruff doesn’t have a contract. He deserves to stay. It’s funny how things work out. When he was a top assistant with the Rangers on Quinn’s staff, fans couldn’t wait to get rid of him. Now, the Rangers are again searching for a new coach after dismissing Gerard Gallant. Go figure.

One question is whether top assistant Andrew Brunette will become available. There should be interest around the league. He coached the Panthers to the President’s Trophy. One would imagine he’ll get another shot.

It’s hard to believe the season is over for both the Rangers and Devils. The Battle of Hudson didn’t disappoint. Both teams made the playoffs. Unfortunately, the Rangers couldn’t meet unrealistic expectations. They were outplayed by the Devils in the first round. Sometimes, it’s harder to be successful in Year Two. Especially off a surprising run. Team President and GM Chris Drury will have a lot of pressure on him.

It’ll be different on the Jersey side. They’ll make some tough choices. However, with a young nucleus featuring Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Dawson Mercer, and possibly Jesper Bratt and Timo Meier, there’s a lot to like. They might’ve found their goalie of the future in Akira Schmid. They had to love what they saw from Luke Hughes on Thursday night.

What you have are two good rivals who should be challenging the Hurricanes in the Metropolitan Division. Whether Carolina wins or not, we’ll see. I might pull for Fast and former favorite Derek Stepan. It’s ironic that both play checking roles. I never understood letting Quickie go. I suggested Stepan for our team. He certainly knows how to play.

It’s Rangers South awaiting the winner between the Maple Leafs and Panthers in the Conference Finals. Fast has reminded the Rangers what they’re missing.


About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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