NEW YORK – In the Rangers’ last four victories, including the team’s three wins to close out the series against the Washington Capitals, the homegrown line of Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan and Jesper Fast has accounted for 11 of the team’s 30 total points.
The trio came to be after Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello sustained a head injury in Game 5 of the first round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and coach Alain Vigneault was forced to switch up the lines. After initially moving Fast up to the third line, he eventually settled on putting him on the second line with Stepan and Kreider before Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
In Saturday afternoon’s 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning, the line accounted for the first goal of the game after Stepan knocked in a rebound from Kreider with 12.7 seconds remaining in the second period.
With time winding down in the period, Kreider fought through a pair of defenders in front of the net and came away with the loose puck. His shot hit off the skate of Lightning blueliner Andrej Sustr and landed right in front of Stepan, who buried the rebound.
It appeared Kreider knocked the stick out of the hands of Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop prior to the goal, but Stepan said he didn’t know exactly what happened, and just saw that “the puck just laid there for [Kreider], and he was able to jump on it.”
The goal came after the Rangers had dominated for much of the first two periods. After two, New York had 48 shot attempts (22 on goal, 14 blocked, four missed), while Tampa Bay had 30 (19 on goal, seven blocked, 12 missed).
Stepan’s goal was his second in as many games and extended his point streak to four. The alternate captain is tied for the team lead with nine points during the postseason.
“I’m going to keep giving credit to the two wingers. Kreids [Kreider] and Quickie [Fast] did a lot of good things today,” Stepan said. “On the goal they did a good job of getting in front, and Kreids jumps on a rebound and obviously able to find a fortunate bounce."
The goal was similar to Stepan’s series-winning goal in overtime of Wednesday night’s Game 7 victory over the Capitals, in that it came on a rebound. Stepan said it was a coincidence that both goals were in the same spot, and that he’s just been “trying to find areas that [he thinks] the puck could end up.” He added he didn’t know if he’s been finding more open space behind the defense, but said in the playoffs, those are the kind of goals that will make the difference in the game.
“It’s how the goals are scored in the playoffs,” Stepan said. “You don’t see too many tic-tac-toe plays. You kind of have to get the ugly ones and that's where they’re going to be scored, is that 10 feet around the net.”
Stepan credited Kreider and Fast for getting to those pucks that have allowed him to be in the right place to get the “fortunate bounces.”
“I think my two wingers have worked extremely hard,” Stepan said. “Chris uses his speed and Jesper is just tenacious in the corners, and we’ve found some good chemistry together, and we’re just able to manage the game with good speed and not have too many bad turnovers.”
The newest addition to the line, Fast, said he has felt more confidence since Vigneault moved him up in the rotation and trusted him with more minutes. His comfort level and confidence has helped him gel with his new linemates, but said they felt that chemistry “right away” after they were cobbled together. Fast said there wasn’t much of a challenge making the switch in the middle of the series because, “you’re still really trying to play your own game, so you’re not trying to do anything different.”
After practice on Friday, Vingneault credited Fast, saying, “He’s got tremendous hockey sense, both defensively and offensively. 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.
“He's got two very young players [Kreider and Stepan] that are a little bit like him on the upswing of their careers, two guys that love being on the ice and want responsibility. So there is no doubt that since I’ve put that line together, they’ve been very good against other players.”