NEW YORK -- As the losses piled up for the Rangers, so did the questions.
What type of team are they? An underachieving group with a front-loaded cast of top talent? A middling team with a lack of identity?
How good can they be without Rick Nash? How good can they be with him?
They got the answer to the latter, or at least a glimpse, as the dynamic winger exerted his will on almost every shift in his much-anticipated return to the lineup.
After missing four games with an undisclosed injury (believed to be a concussion), Nash didn't miss a stride in his first game back. The team's star forward finished the game with a goal, an assist and 12 shots as the Rangers rolled to a 4-1 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
His presence was a necessary one in helping the Rangers halt a four-game winless streak (think it was a coincidence the team went 0-3-1 without him?) and complete the series sweep of the Bolts.
"Did you see Nash had 20 shots himself tonight?" joked coach John Tortorella. "Nash immediately had an impact as far as offensive energy and doing some good things."
And not just for the two points he contributed, but the spillover effect he caused on the ice, particularly with linemates Brad Richards and Carl Hagelin, the latter of which opened up scoring for the Rangers at 7:23 of the first period.
"He brings size, he brings speed, he brings skills. There's a lot of components he brings," Hagelin said. "He's one of the best players in the league so when you have a guy like that coming in, it's going to help."
Nash helped to create open space for his teammates, but Hagelin also was an offensive tone-setter for the Rangers. The young speedster buzzed around the ice and swarmed the puck in the first period and was rewarded with his seventh goal of the season after sizzling a slap shot past Lightning goaltender Mathieu Garon.
With Hagelin's speed, Nash's size and skill, and Richards' masterful job from the faceoff circle (the veteran center won 17 of 20 draws), the Rangers won the puck possession battle, particularly in the first period. Forcing an opportunistic Lightning team to play in its own end, the Rangers took a 2-0 lead and didn't buckle when the Bolts cut that lead in half later in the period.
"We know how good we can be. It's just a matter of going on the ice and doing it and putting a full 60 minutes together," said captain Ryan Callahan, who set up Derek Stepan on the Rangers' second goal of the night. "We've had spurts of it but I think that first period was definitely our identity and what we try to create here and how we have to play."
The win had to be in some sense both a relief and an affirmation that this team still has the horses -- and the mental makeup -- to be one of the top teams in the East, and that goes beyond Nash.
The team also returned two of its top defensemen in Ryan McDonagh and Michael Del Zotto, who played 25:34 and 20:53, respectively. Down to the bare bones on the back end in recent games, Tortorella had the luxury Thursday of easing McDonagh back in on the second pair while employing Marc Staal and Dan Girardi as his top tandem.
The Rangers were stout defensively, limiting league-leading scorer Steven Stamkos to an assist and halting his six-game goal-scoring streak. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was superb when necessary as well, thwarting Stamkos' lethal one-timer and blanking Alexander Killorn for key stops in the third period.
"You see that third period? They [Tampa] throw caution to the wind and just fly," Tortorella said. "At times we did a pretty good job in the third period keeping the foot to the pedal, but [Lundqvist] stood tall and made some big saves for us in the third period."
The Rangers had to give up quite a bit in the trade with Columbus to land Nash -- parting with hard-nosed forward Brandon Dubinsky and versatile center Artem Anisimov -- but they did so knowing that he was a special player worth the hefty price tag.
Thursday night he proved them right, even if he didn't feel he was quite back to form.
"I felt OK," he said. "My timing was a bit off. My wind wasn't as good as I wanted to be, but the main thing was that we got the two points. That's all that matters."
Of Nash's dozen chances, the prettiest was probably the slick move he made to undress Lightning defenseman Eric Brewer in the second period.
But he didn't actually cash in until late in the third, when he beat Garon to pad the Rangers' lead to 4-1 with 1:27 remaining in regulation. It was understated by comparison, but Nash was satisfied with the goal as it helped seal the win.
Now, the Rangers just have to keep the ball rolling.
"We have to get streaky," Nash said. "I think if we just build momentum off of tonight and carry it into the next one, we're doing a lot of good things so we'll be fine."