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Zuccarello’s absence presents a big opportunity for youngsters

Bobby Bevilacqua

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Jesper Fast is one of the Rangers’ young players that have stepped up in the playoffs in an attempt to fill the void left by injured winger Mats Zuccarello. Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

Since Game 5 of the opening round against the Penguins, the Rangers have been without their top line winger Mats Zuccarello, out with a concussion after taking an errant puck to the side of the head. He was initially out “indefinitely,” but after skating with the team a few times, he was upgraded to “day-to-day” status.

Zuccarello’s absence immediately left a void in the Rangers lineup. He’s been one of the best possession players on the team throughout the season, and can always find the open man due to his vision on the ice and his fantastic passing skills. Zuccarello is a sparkplug, playing physical and aggressively despite his small stature.

When the Rangers found out that he would miss a significant amount of time, Vigneault worked on finding a player to replace Zuccarello on the top line. He initially turned to the veteran Martin St. Louis, but soon decided that it would be up to his young players to step up and start producing in a top-six forward role.

During the series against the Capitals, Vigneault surprisingly promoted Jesper Fast to the second line alongside Chris Kreider and Derek Stepan. It was surprising because Fast had spent most of the season on the fourth line, occasionallybeing bumped up to the third line. But Fast had earned a lot of trust from Vigneault during the season, and got the chance to play on the second line.

Since then, Fast has not looked back, solidifying his spot on a dynamic line with Kreider and Stepan, a line that has been very consistent and dangerous. Stepan is a solid all-around player, able to do a bit of everything. When he’s in the zone, he can pass as good as anyone on the team. Chris Kreider has been the clutch scorer for the Rangers in the playoffs, second on the team in playoff goals with seven. They’ve played for so long together, and have great chemistry.

It feels as if Jesper Fast has been on that line for months, because he fit in so well. Like Stepan, Fast can do a bit of everything. He’s extremely responsible defensively, and has flashes of offensive brilliance at times. His speed fits in perfectly with Kreider, and adds depth to that line.

Jesper Fast is hard to move off of the puck, plays a physical game and has turned into a very important forward for New York in the playoffs. He has six points (3-3-6) in the playoffs, including his first career multi-goal game in a Game 3 loss to the Lightning. Fast is one of the players that has really stepped up his play as a top six player.

JT Miller may have had his best game as a Ranger in the must-win Game 6, playing on the top line with Rick Nash and Derick Brassard, scoring his first career playoff goal, and adding three assists for a massive four point night. That top line had a combined total of 13 points (5-8-13) in Game 6.

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JT Miller celebrates after scoring his first career playoff goal in Game 6. He finished with four points. Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

 

He made a great play early in the game to help open up the scoring for the Rangers in Game 6. He took a shot from Dan Boyle and slid the puck over to Brassard for the first goal of the game. And with the Rangers holding a 2-1 lead, Brassard helped him out, feeding him from behind the net for his first career playoff goal.

JT Miller’s growth from last season is one of the most impressive changes during this season. Last year, Miller was often a healthy scratch, bouncing between the NHL and AHL, and playing just four games in the playoffs, including being a healthy scratch in both Game 7s.

Now he will take the right wing spot on the top line alongside Derick Brassard and Rick Nash in Game 7 of the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals, with a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals on the line.

Vigneault said that he wanted to put Miller on the top line, putting a skilled player on that line, one that also has size. JT Miller is 6’1”, 205 pounds, which allows him to battle with guys like Stevan Stamkos and Brian Boyle, and win pucks along the boards. His goal in Game 6 happened after he outmuscled Stamkos to get to the front of the net.

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JT Miller is growing into a very important and versatile Ranger, able to play all three forward positions and create offense for his teammates. Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

 

Even though he has only one goal, Miller hasn’t had much luck at all. He’s hit the post quite a few times throughout the playoffs, and was robbed on great chances by Fleury, Holtby and Ben Bishop. But he’s created a lot of offense and chances so far, as well as using his frame to battle on the boards and win pucks.

His versatility has been very helpful as well. Miller has played the right wing position on the third line, fourth line center, and right and left wing on the top line. Vigneault has been able to use him in any situation that he needs, which really helps in all game situations.

The Rangers will be playing for a chance to return to the Stanley Cup Finals tomorrow night. JT Miller and Jesper Fast will play a big part in that effort in their increased roles.

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Posted on May 28, 2015, in In the Crease and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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