NEW YORK -- Inside the New York Rangers' locker room, the players marveled at forward Rick Nash's performance in his first game back after a four-game absence accompanied by little physical activity.
Outside the Tampa Bay Lightning locker room, Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher tersely wondered where his players were in the first two periods of the Rangers' 4-1 win Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
The Rangers, boosted by the return of Nash and several key players, busted out with a two-goal first period and played one of their best games of the year to end a four-game losing streak. They also swept the season series against Tampa Bay 3-0.
Nash, who was out with what he has called a combination of injuries, put the capper on the win with a goal on his career-high 12th shot of the game with 1:33 left. He also had an assist while creating space for his teammates and helping them stay on the attack most of the night.
"He was unbelievable," said Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who made 24 stops, including 13 in the third period when he turned back several tough shots. "But at the same time, I know how good he is, so it doesn't surprise me. It's tough to come back and play a game like that, but great players can do that."
Nash said of his return, "It felt OK. My timing was a bit off and my wind wasn't what I wanted it to be, but the main thing was we got two points."
Carl Hagelin scored his seventh goal of the season for the Rangers (9-8-2) and Derek Stepan added his fourth, with a sharp assist from Ryan Callahan.
Marc Staal scored a rare power-play goal for the Rangers. Ryan McDonagh and Michael Del Zotto, the other key Rangers to return from injuries, also had assists for New York.
Martin St. Louis scored his fifth goal of the year for Tampa Bay (9-10-1), which dropped its third straight game. Steven Stamkos extended his points streak to eight games with an assist but was stopped by Lundqvist on a two-on-one opportunity in the third period.
Lightning goalie Mathieu Garon, starting for the third time in the past week, made 38 saves as the Rangers tied a season high with 42 shots.
After the Lightning were outshot 20-2 in the first period and 35-11 after two, Boucher lamented the poor effort that wasn't increased until the third period, calling it "unacceptable."
"The battle level wasn't there. Turnovers were there," he said. "We were running around in the neutral zone. We just were not ready to play, just couldn't come out. We got absolutely nothing in the first, nothing in the second. All of a sudden, in the third, we're trailing and it's do-or-die and now we start playing."
Added Stamkos, "It's getting to the point where it's embarrassing."
Buoyed by Nash's return, the Rangers were ready to play from the get-go. They dominated the first period, relentlessly attacking as Nash said the Rangers, whose tentativeness has sometimes sparked pleading choruses to "shoot!" from Garden fans, were "taking shots, not worried about the angles as much."
Hagelin got New York on the board as he slipped around a falling defenseman before nailing a slap shot from the left faceoff circle for a 1-0 lead at 7:23 of the first period.
"I go games between these games where I miss a lot of chances," said Hagelin, who has scored four goals against the Lightning this season, "then all of a sudden, they go in."
The Rangers went up 2-0 a little more than a minute later thanks to a slick backhand pass behind the net from Callahan to Stepan, who snapped it past Garon at 8:40.
St. Louis made the Lightning's second shot count at the end of the Rangers' dominating first period. He streaked to the net, where he took a pass from Brewer and quickly flipped a pretty backhand shot past Lundqvist to make it 2-1 with 3:51 left in the first.
"They're such an offensive team, I was worried," Tortorella said. "I thought we played really well, but it was just 2-1."
Despite outshooting Tampa Bay by 24 shots through the first two periods, the Rangers nearly entered the third with the same score. Then Staal persisted to poke in a rebound while Garon was left sprawling, making it 3-1 with 3:52 left in the second period. The power-play goal, with assists from Nash and J.T. Miller, was just the Rangers' eighth of the season with a man-advantage.
Lundqvist turned back several surges from Tampa Bay in the third and then Nash put the capper on his comeback, scoring on a nifty pass from Brad Richards in front of the net.
"Yeah, it was important, to help the team," Nash said of getting a goal after all those shots. "It's a great pass by Richards ... It was nice to help the team, score a goal."
NOTES: With Nash returning after his four-game absence, the Rangers demoted defenseman Chris Kreider to AHL affiliate Connecticut. "I think Chris has a lot to learn about the game and has a lot to learn about being a pro," Tortorella said. "I think he has pretty good attributes to be a player; he just has to put them together." ... McDonagh had missed one game for the Rangers and Del Zotto was out for two. ... Lightning left winger Ryan Malone missed his ninth game with a lower-body injury, but the club hoped to have him join it during the road trip. ... Tampa Bay defenseman Sami Salo was out with a lower-body injury and is listed as day to day. ... Tampa Bay forward B.J. Crombeen and Rangers defenseman Stu Bickel got into an extended bout in front of the Rangers bench shortly after New York went up 2-0 in the first period.