NEW YORK -- John Tortorella summed up what Rick Nash has meant to the all-of-a-sudden streaking New York Rangers in three quick words.
"He's ignited us," Tortorella said.
Isn't that why the Rangers gave up some key pieces off their 109-point team last season to acquire Nash over the summer?
The answer is yes -- and Nash is making Ranger fans forget all about Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon and that first-round pick that now belongs to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
After missing four consecutive games with an undisclosed injury -- the Rangers went 0-3-1 in those games -- Nash has returned energized and aggressive and the Rangers are 3-0-0. He scored twice in the third period Tuesday night to carry New York to a 4-2 win against the Philadelphia Flyers; a victory that lifted the Rangers over the Flyers in the Eastern Conference standings.
The Rangers, who also got a pair of first-period goals from Ryan Callahan, have 24 points in 21 games; the Flyers have 23 points in 24 games. Both teams are in action Thursday as the Flyers host the Pittsburgh Penguins while the Rangers visit the New York Islanders.
"The next game is going to be the biggest game of the season," Flyers captain Claude Giroux said. "After that, we have to move on to the next one, and that's going to be the biggest game of the season."
Nash has four goals and two assists in the three games he's played since returning to the lineup. He has seven goals and 11 assists in 17 games this season -- and all seven of Nash's goals have come in the third period, including a go-ahead goal Sunday in a 3-2 shootout win over Buffalo. Nash also scored in that shootout and had the primary assist on Derek Stepan's game-tying goal.
He had a goal, an assist and 12 shots on goal in New York's 4-1 win against Tampa Bay last Thursday.
"I just started smiling after he scored the second goal," said Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who made 23 saves for his 10th win of the season. "It just feels so good to have a player like that on the team. We have a lot of guys that can step up, but he just brings it to another level.
"When Jags [Jaromir Jagr] was at his best here, he was that type of player. Nash is doing things right now that are very impressive to see."
Nash insists nothing he hasn't changed anything in his game since returning to the lineup, and Tortorella backs him on that. They both said he was getting the same amount of opportunities early in the season but the puck just wasn't going in.
It is now, and the Rangers are playing arguably their most consistent hockey of the season.
"Now he's scoring big goals, they're going in for him," Tortorella said. "He's been pretty important to us."
So has Callahan, who has three goals and five points in the last four games.
He gave the Rangers a 1-0 lead with a power-play goal just 90 seconds into the game, then tied the game at 2-2 just before the first intermission with a beauty of a 5-on-5 goal.
Callahan carried the puck in front the left-wing half-wall, darted around a sliding Luke Schenn, got to the blue paint, pulled the puck back to avoid Ilya Bryzgalov's poke check and then tucked the puck in between the right post and Bryzgalov's left skate.
The Flyers took the 2-1 lead on power-play goals by Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek separated by 9:49. They didn't score again.
"We gave up a goal at the end of the first period. That can't happen," Simmonds said. "The second period, I think it was a defensive battle for both sides. Third period, we blinked first. We didn't play as well as we could have. That cost us the game."
The score stayed 2-2 through the second intermission, but Nash quickly changed that when he beat Bryzgalov with a hard shot off the rush 2:50 into the third period. Dan Girardi chipped the puck up to Nash, who carried it in from the red line, between the benches, and unloaded a shot that beat Bryzgalov.
Nash scored the insurance goal on a breakaway with 8:18 left in the third period. He didn't break stride despite the fact that Flyers defenseman Timonen was hooking him from behind.
"My theory is give him the puck and let him do his thing," Girardi said. "I just chipped the puck up the wall and he goes down and scores. It's an easy game that way. He's such a dynamic player, and he's a game-breaker. That's why we had to trade away a lot of guys to get a player like that. He has been big for us and I expect big things from him."
However, the victory came at a price for the Rangers.
They were already playing without Brad Richards (soreness) before losing defenseman Marc Staal to a scary injury 5:45 into the third period.
Staal, who does not wear a visor, was struck near the right eye after Timonen's low slap shot from the point was deflected by Voracek. He fell to the ice and was writhing in pain as blood poured out of his face.
Staal was able to get up on his own and, while covering his face, he skated off with the help of trainer Jim Ramsay. The Rangers did not provide an official update on Staal after the game.
"It's scary," Tortorella said without providing a further update on Staal's status.
The Flyers also lost a defenseman in the game as Nicklas Grossmann suffered a lower-body injury in the first period and did not return.