NEW YORK -- Simon Gagne was one of the many elite players who wasn't deemed worthy of a spot on Team Canada for the 2010 Olympics. Seven hours after being passed over, he played like the best player in the world.
Gagne had a hat trick and an assist Wednesday night as the Philadelphia Flyers dismantled the lifeless New York Rangers 6-0 in front of a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden. It was the St. Foye, Que., native's first three-goal game since Nov. 5, 2005, and the third of his career.
The 29-year-old left wing admitted after the game that he wasn't surprised he was left off Canada's roster, but it didn't make the news any easier to take.
"I was kind of expecting that. I haven't had a chance to play a lot of games this year," said Gagne, who has played in just 15 games this season thanks to abdominal surgery that caused him to miss 24 games. "If you look at the team they picked, it's all players that have had great starts to the seasons. It's tough, but it's going to give me 15 days of break and I'll take that for sure."
Gagne entered the game with just 2 goals and 6 assists in his limited action this season. Thanks to Wednesday night's outburst, he now has 4 goals and 3 assists in six games since returning the lineup. Not coincidentally, the Flyers won four straight with Gagne starting to find his game.
"He's obviously a guy we're counting on to score a lot of goals, and he got three big ones tonight," said defenseman Chris Pronger, who was selected to represent Team Canada for the fourth time earlier in the day. "It's confidence for him, getting back into the swing of things. He's had a long layoff, so hopefully this gets him going."
In net for the Flyers during this four-game winning streak has been Michael Leighton, who was claimed off waivers from the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 15. He had to make just 22 saves against a Rangers team that struggled to mount a consistent offensive attack, but a made a few key saves during the contest.
The shutout was only the fourth of Leighton's career and his first since Dec. 28, 2004. He was only supposed to serve as backup with Ray Emery recovering from his own abdominal surgery, but fellow goaltender Brian Boucher injured his hand, thrusting Leighton into the starting role.
Clearly, the consistent work has done wonders for the 28-year-old journeyman.
"I definitely feel more comfortable the more games I play," he said. "I haven't gotten this opportunity in the NHL in a long time. Right now I'm feeling pretty good and the team is playing well in front of me, so if we keep winning games things are going to keep going well for us."
Not bad for a guy who two weeks ago was wondering about his future in the NHL.
"I really wasn't sure what was going on. I was kind of looking at future and wondering what path my career was going to go," Leighton said. "I'm happy Philly picked me up and obviously it's too bad Bouch got hurt. But it's given me an opportunity to step in."
It's been a big turnaround of late for the Flyers, who are now sitting on top of a four-way tie for eighth place in the Eastern Conference -- Philadelphia, the Rangers, Tampa Bay and Atlanta all have 40 points, but the Flyers have the most victories (19). Coach Peter Laviolette took over for the fired John Stevens on Dec. 4, and there were some obvious growing pains right off the bat, with Philadelphia going 2-7-1 and sinking further in the East.
But thanks to this four-game run, Laviolette is starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel.
"I don't know if you ever see one coming," Laviolette said of the winning streak. "You hope to win every game, but that's unrealistic. You want to make sure you're playing well and doing the things you need to do in order to win hockey games, and I feel like we're starting to take steps toward doing that."
Danny Briere and Claude Giroux had a goal and an assist for the Flyers, and captain Mike Richards had two assists. Blair Betts, who spent four seasons with the Rangers, scored 54 seconds into the first period in his first game back at MadisonSquareGarden since leaving as a free agent during the offseason.
Briere and Giroux followed with goals of their own in the first period, giving the Flyers a 3-0 lead after one period. That was all for goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who was replaced by rookie Chad Johnson to open the second period. Lundqvist made just 8 saves in his 13th consecutive start.
"If you let in three goals, there is a chance you won't keep playing," Lundqvist said. "I didn't know what was going to happen. I was disappointed allowing three goals. I know I can play better but also as a team we have to play better."
Next up for the Flyers is a day off Thursday before taking part in the 2010 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic against the Boston Bruins in FenwayPark on New Year's Day. Players were finally able to shed the "we're focusing on the next game" mentality and start getting excited about the outdoor game.
"It's definitely going to be a bit more fun and we'll be relaxed at practice tomorrow," Gagne said. "It's going to be a great day for us. We're going to get a chance to get to skate on that ice (Thursday at practice). And definitely having a win tonight is going to make it more fun."
"We're obviously feeling confident about ourselves now and feeling a lot better abut the way we're playing," Pronger said. "It's a good way to go into a big game like that. It's going to be fun and I'm excited to be a part of it."