NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Apparently, the Rangers missed Jesper Fast more than anyone realized.
The Swedish winger, known more for his defense than his offense, returned to the lineup after missing the previous five games with an upper-body injury and scored two goals, including the eventual game-winner early in the third period, as the Rangers earned a 4-3 win over the struggling Nashville Predators on Saturday night.
The Rangers are 16-14-7 (39 points). The regulation win was only their 10th of the season (the fewest in the league) and their first on the road.
After failing to hold a one-goal lead late in the third period of Thursday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets in their last game, coach David Quinn said the Rangers held a players-only meeting Saturday. They talked about how to play winning hockey rather than just good hockey.
“I give our leadership group a lot of credit, our captains and Hank [Henrik Lundqvist] and Shatty [Kevin Shattenkirk],’’ Quinn said. “They got together with the team today and we didn’t even have a team meeting today. Give those guys a lot of credit; they took the bull by the horns and played winning hockey when it mattered.’’
The Rangers entered the third period trailing 3-2 when one of those alternate captains, Marc Staal, joined the rush late, took a pass from Fast and scored the tying goal at 4:23. Fast scored what proved to be the winner on a one-timer from the high slot off a pass from Mika Zibanejad, who had four assists.
With Fast and Cody McLeod (broken hand, 14 games missed) returning to action, Quinn reconfigured his lineup. He put Fast, a defensive-minded right wing, on the top line with Zibanejad and put the team’s top goal-scorer, Chris Kreider, on their left. The trio came through in a big way. Kreider had a goal and two assists and Fast had an assist to go with his two goals.
“It felt good being back with those guys. Familiar,’’ Zibanejad said. “And I think we play very simple. It paid off today, and the most important thing is that we got the two points and a win, and we were able to close out a game.’’
Lundqvist, who made 34 saves, said: “We’ve been talking about — winning in this league is not playing great all the time. It’s playing smart and finding a way. I think that’s more important than to feel like you played a great game all the time. That’s not going to win you games. It’s the smartness, and key plays at the right time.
“There’s so many games that, obviously, we could have won. We played good enough to win a lot of games, but it came down to a couple plays in the end that turned the game around.’’
Kevin Hayes, who had been playing on the second line with Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich, skated with Vladislav Namestnikov and Mats Zuccarello on the second line. He had an assist on Kreider’s power-play goal to extend his career-high point-scoring streak to nine games.
Kreider got the Rangers on the board first with a power- play goal at 2:42 of the first period when he deflected in a shot by Zibanejad seven seconds after the Predators were given a bench penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. Nashville tied it with a power-play goal of its own at 8:43 of the period, when Nick Bonino deflected in a shot from Mattias Ekholm with Brady Skjei sitting out a holding penalty.
Fast’s fourth goal of the season gave the Rangers a 2-1 lead at 3:51 of the second period, but Kevin Fiala tied it at 4:44. Bonino’s second power-play goal of the game, at 10:05 of the period, gave the Predators their first lead at 3-2.