A Wolf Pack offense that was among the least potent in the AHL for much of the first half of the season has suddenly broken out for a total of 18 goals in its last four games, and the one individual who has been the biggest contributor to that is Swedish-born rookie Jesper Fast.
Fast has only played in 19 of the Wolf Pack’s first 42 games, due to the fact that he started the season with the parent New York Rangers, suiting up for eight NHL contests, and then suffered a high ankle sprain in his third game with the Wolf Pack, missing 14 games. After his return December 20, the 22-year-old winger managed only two goals and five points in his first ten games, but then went on a run that saw him score six times in the next five games, including back-to-back two-goal outings.
“We thought we’d have a good player in Jesper Fast when he came to us, and then unfortunately he got injured right away,” Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander said earlier this week. “And everybody thinks when you’re cleared to play (after being injured), you’re a hundred percent and firing on all cylinders, and the reality is, he missed six weeks, and it’s not like you have a training camp and you get to build to a return to the lineup. It took him a little bit of time to get his feet underneath him, but now he’s returned to form.”
Fast agreed with his coach’s assessment that being back to full health was the biggest single factor in his hot streak, saying, “My body feels good, I’ve been working hard to get back. It’s just having a good time out there and playing with some good guys. It’s good to start to get some points.”
Those “good guys” are linemates J.T. Miller and Ryan Bourque, with whom Fast has formed a trio that has combined for 13 points in the Pack’s last four games, three of which have been wins. According to Gernander, Fast’s hockey smarts are one of the biggest keys to the line’s success.
“I think Jesper Fast is someone that always makes his linemates better,” the Pack bench boss said. “He does all the little things, he’s very intuitive, has real good hockey sense. So I think he’s kind of a stabilizing influence for that line, and his chemistry with J.T. gives J.T. a little bit more liberty to try things offensively, knowing full well that you’ve got a guy that can read off you, both offensively to jump into holes, and also defensively if need be.”
Miller said of Fast, “He’s a tremendous player, he’s got a lot of upside. He’s not very big, but he definitely makes the most of it, and he plays like a big guy. He’s always being physical and initiating the contact, and obviously he’s pretty hot right now, we’ll try to keep getting him the puck. He’s a big part of our offense right now and a big part of the team’s success.”
That physical part of the game has always been a strength for Fast, despite his relatively slight stature, at six feet and 185 pounds. He has scored most of his AHL goals from the high-traffic area right around the net, and that was the case for him on the bigger ice surfaces in Europe as well.
“I’ve always tried to be around the net, where it all happens,” Fast said. “That’s where you have to be if you want to score goals.
“There are more battles here (in North America). It’s a smaller rink, so there are a lot of battles out there. I think it fits my style pretty well on the small rink. Of course it’s an adjustment here, but I’m starting to feel pretty comfortable out there.”
As far as his synergy with Miller, Fast’s comment was, “I like playing with him, he’s a really skilled player, he can protect the puck. I think he brings a lot of attention on himself, so it gives me some extra space when he gets the puck.”
“We have a good forechecking line, with speed, with Bourquie and Jesper,” said Miller, “and I try to get in there and use my size and just try to find people open, and obviously the power play’s been really good lately. We’ve just got to make sure we keep capitalizing on those chances, but I think most of our success comes off the rush and the forecheck.
“We have a little bit of everything on the line right now. Everybody can play, with their skill, and everybody can shoot the puck and play offense, but they’re (his linemates) both defensively responsible and it makes it easier on me, and that’s a huge part, when you’re spending less time in your zone.”
Fast summarized, “We all three work hard. I think we know each other, what we’re good at, just work hard and use what we’re good at.”
Gernander has counted on the Bourque-Miller-Fast line in all situations, but Fast has been particularly dangerous on the power play. Three of his six goals in his recent run have come in man-advantage situations, part of a Pack power play streak of six goals in three games.
“We talked a little bit about it, and we can’t just let the puck go around, we have to shoot the puck and create second chances from the rebounds,” Fast said of the power play.
The right-handed-shooting Fast has found home in the left circle in the Wolf Pack power-play setup, looking either to get open for cross-slot passes from Miller, or get to the net for tips and rebounds.
“I don’t have to stay and wait for the puck, I feel comfortable there (on the left side),” Fast said. “I have to be ready for the shot and find a spot to get open, but those guys make some good plays out there, so it makes it a lot easier for me.”
Fast’s scoring exploits lately have made things much easier on the Wolf Pack as a team, leading to the club’s most positive streak since the first two weeks of the season. If the gritty Swede can sustain his current level of play, his ascent back to the NHL should be, well, fast.