Rick Nash returned to the Rangers lineup Thursday night and played a powerhouse game, and his teammates followed suit, as the Blueshirts skated to an impressive 4-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning at Madison Square Garden. The win snapped the Rangers four-game skid, while the loss was Tampa Bay's third straight.
The Rangers had been winless with Nash sidelined by injury, going 0-3-1 in the previous four games, but they looked like a different team Thursday night, dominating the Lightning in every facet of the game all night long. If not for Lightning goaltender Mathieu Garon, who was poised and simply terrific in making 38 saves, the Blueshirts likely would have romped to a much easier victory.
Nash, who scored off a gorgeous Brad Richards feed with 1:33 to play and earned a power play assist in the second period, had four shots on goal after one period of play, and nine after 40 minutes. He finished with 12. Nash played a hungry game, and his inspired teammates did likewise, as the Rangers finished off a three-game season-series sweep of the Lightning with the victory.
The Rangers stormed out of the starting gate to play their most dominating period of the season so far, but somehow despite outshooting the Lightning 20-3 in the first period the Blueshirts reached the first intermission holding only a 2-1 lead.
Carl Hagelin opened the scoring 7:23 into the first when he danced around a defenseman to create some space on left wing before blasting a slap shot past Garon for his seventh goal of the season, and his ninth point in the last nine games. Shortly thereafter Ryan Callahan made a pretty pass from behind the net to an open Derek Stepan in front, and Stepan buried his fourth goal of the season at 8:40 giving the Rangers a quick 2-0 lead.
At that point with the Rangers dominating play and Tampa Bay held to one measly shot on goal it seemed as if the rout would be on for the home team. But Garon was a one-man show in keeping the Blueshirts off the scoreboard the remainder of the first period---with Nash firing four of his team's 20 shots on goal. Seconds after Garon made a sharp save on a Marian Gaborik blast, the opportunistic Lightning sped the other way and scored off transition at 16:09.
Martin St. Louis skated down the middle and redirected a perfect Eric Brewer pass past Henrik Lundqvist for his fifth goal on only Tampa Bay's second shot of the game, and the Rangers lead was cut in half. But to their credit, the Rangers picked right up and continued to get in on the forecheck and control both the puck and the flow of the game until the buzzer sounded ending the opening period.
The second period was more of the same for the Rangers---who posessed the puck far more than the Lightning. And despite a failed 5-on-3 power play earlier in the period, the Rangers scored a power play goal with 3:52 to play in the middle stanza to grab a 3-1 lead---one they carried into the second intermission, along with a 35-11 shots advantage.
Nash started the play by bulling into the offensive zone after a Lightning clear hit the linesman in the neutral zone. The once-again-healthy Nash fired a shot on goal which was stopped by Garon, but on the rebound J.T. Miller kept the play alive shooting the puck off the post, and Marc Staal finished it off by reaching around a defenseman to tap the puck over the goal line for his second goal of the season.
Lundqvist faced only 11 shots through two periods, but he was tested more often in the third when the Lightning pressed more offensively. And the Rangers netminder was up to the challenge making several sharp stops, including a pair during a critical Tampa Bay power play early in the period. Lundqvist finished with 24 saves on the night in earning his eighth victory of the season.
The Rangers were a perfect 3-for-3 on the penalty kill against the Lightning's dynamic power play, and they held the league's top scorer Steven Stamkos in check most of the night, holding him to a single assist.
Like Nash, Ryan McDonagh and Michael Del Zotto also returned to the Blueshirts lineup after injury absences. McDonagh assisted on both the Hagelin and Nash goals and played his usual solid two-way game, while Del Zotto also played well, often paired with Steve Eminger---who was in for the ill Matt Gilroy.