NEW YORK -- It doesn't take a doctor to see that whatever was ailing Rick Nash over the past four games wasn't hindering him in his return to the New York Rangers' lineup Thursday night.
Nash was a force of nature, registering a goal, an assist and 12 shots as the Rangers steamrolled the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-1 for their first win since he was sidelined with what was likely a concussion, although the team never disclosed the injury.
The Rangers were about as healthy as they've have been since the start of the season. In addition to Nash, they also welcomed back defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Michael Del Zotto after the former missed one game with a head injury and the latter was absent for the past two with a lower-body affliction. McDonagh contributed two assists while Del Zotto was a plus-1 in 20:53 of ice time.
"Nash was himself tonight. Him, McDonagh and Del Zotto are the three main cogs," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "Nash immediately had an impact as far as offensive energy and just doing some good things."
Despite his best effort of the season, Nash felt he could have done more.
"I felt OK. My timing was a bit off," Nash said. "My wind wasn't as good as I wanted to be. The main thing was we got the two points. That's all that matters."
As for his 12 shots, Nash said, "I mean, a lot of my shots [four] were blocked. I have to do a better job of getting those through. The chances were there again. They've been there all year. I just have to bear down and keep trying to bury them."
This game was as one-sided as it gets for the first two periods, and only a stellar effort from Lightning goaltender Mathieu Garon, who made 38 saves in defeat and faced 20 shots in the first period alone, kept the score respectable.
Carl Hagelin put the Rangers ahead 1-0 with his seventh goal of the season after the Lightning couldn't get out of their own way. Defenseman Keith Aulie had position on Hagelin just inside the blue line but wiped out on his own and slid into the boards. That allowed Hagelin to move unfettered to the left faceoff dot and blister a shot that beat Garon to his blocker side. Garon had little chance to make the save, as the other defenseman, Brian Lee, backed directly into his line of vision.
The Lightning once again were lost in their own zone when Derek Stepan's fourth goal of the season 1:17 later made it 2-0. Rangers captain Ryan Callahan had the puck on his stick behind the net with no defender getting in his way or blocking the passing lane. Callahan calmly backhanded a pass beyond the reach of Eric Brewer and Cory Conacher for Stepan's easy dunk from near the left post.
"Matty kept us in there in the first period, could have been 6-0 them," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. "It's embarrassing. Everybody has to look at themselves in the mirror, can't feel sorry for ourselves. We put ourselves in this position, so obviously for us it's about reloading. Everybody has to take a look in the mirror, think about what they did today and make sure we go out in practice and for the next game, battle much, much harder than we did today."
Martin St. Louis made it 2-1 with 3:51 left in the period on the Lightning's second shot, but it didn't change the way coach Guy Boucher felt about his team's performance in the early going.
"The first and second [periods] -- just awful. Unacceptable," Boucher said. "The second shift, we gave them three turnovers on the second shift. We couldn't make a pass. Guys were falling everywhere. Every time we were on the forecheck, we couldn't keep the puck in there, lost the battle. For two periods there was no opposition for the other team."
The second period wasn't as lopsided as the first, but the Rangers again were by far the better team, outshooting the Lightning 15-8. Defenseman Marc Staal extended the lead to 3-1 by scoring a power-play goal with 3:52 remaining after a netmouth scramble and a bad break in the neutral zone for the Lightning.
St. Louis fired the puck out of his own zone, but it bounced off the boards and into a linesman. The puck came to rest in the neutral zone, and Brad Richards wasted no time in carrying it back into the Lightning end, preventing Tampa Bay from making a change. Nash moved the puck toward the net, and Staal was the beneficiary.
"It was good to get healthy," Staal said. "Guys were excited to get back in and they all played great tonight. It's always a plus when you have your full lineup."
Staal's goal was his second of the season and gives him 11 points in 19 games. He missed the first half of last season with a concussion and finished with just two goals and three assists in 46 games. But on Thursday he again found himself on the top defense pairing with Dan Girardi, a duo that was a staple of the Rangers before his injury and the emergence of McDonagh.
"Mac was fighting a bit – fighting the puck, fighting his reads, so we just wanted him to take a step back," Tortorella said. "We wanted to take some pressure off of him, as far as always facing the top line. I think Marc Staal has played very well. He gets overlooked because we rave about Mac, the way he's come onto the scene here. Marc, since he's come back from his injury, he's gotten better and better."
The victory gives the Rangers 20 points in 19 games, leaving them one point behind the eighth-place Flyers, who have 21 points in 22 games. The Lightning, who are 3-9-1 since a 6-1-0 start, have 19 points in 20 games but are just two points back of the leaders in the Southeast Division.
When healthy, the Rangers look like a Stanley Cup contender. Tortorella, however, isn't ready to project what his team can do down the road with everyone in the lineup.
"I'm not going to predict how good we are or how bad we are," he said. "We're just going to stay with ourselves and go day-to-day. We're going to try and crawl here. We go two points tonight, so we're just going to worry about our next game."