By Sean Hartnett
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Rick Nash has arguably been the NHL’s best all-around forward through five games. The 30-year-old Rangers winger leads the league with six goals. His seven takeaways is also a league best.

Nash has been an ever-present force, extinguishing any concerns that his $7.8 million annual salary through the 2017-18 season would be a burden on the Blueshirts.

What Rangers fans are observing is Nash playing with fire. Derick Brassard, a longtime teammate of Nash’s in both Columbus and New York, saw something different from Nash on the first day of training camp.

“I’ve known him for a long time and as soon as I saw him in the first practice, I knew he meant business,” Brassard said. “The way he’s skating is off the charts. We need him to be like that. He’s competing very hard.”

While Nash wasn’t able to extend his goal-scoring streak to five games against the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday, he constantly hovered around Anton Khudobin’s net. As the Rangers looked ordinary against the injury-ravaged Canes, Nash stood out with his wholehearted effort.

Notably in the third period, Nash hustled into the neutral zone to make a diving play to break up a Carolina rush.

“One of Nash’s best attributes I feel is that he competes hard at both ends of the rink,” head coach Alain Vigneault said. “A lot of times he’s our first forward back and really helping out our defense. He’s done that since I’ve been here, not just this year. Right now, he’s obviously contributing with big goals at the right time.”

You could call Nash the man with the “Midas touch.” Every time he handles the puck, things turn to gold. The 6-foot-4 winger scored a sensational shootout winner, as the Rangers defeated the Canes 2-1.

“There’s no way he’s missing,” Brassard said. “He’s scored six goals this year, and he’s pretty hot. He’s playing outstanding.”

DEFENSE FINALLY RETURNS TO FORM

Ahead of Thursday’s game, Vigneault challenged the Rangers to improve defensively. The Blueshirts had averaged 5.6 goals against over three consecutive defeats to the Blue Jackets, Maple Leafs and the rival Islanders.

“I’m expecting us to be really focused and energized and well-prepared for a really tough game,” Vigneault said ahead of Thursday’s game. “Way too many turnovers for our defense group right now. As a whole, our group is really playing under par.”

While speaking after Wednesday’s practice, Vigneault demanded more from veterans Marc Staal, Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi.

“Marc has to play better,” Vigneault said. “He hasn’t been the Marc Staal that I saw last year when we were winning games. I can say the same thing for Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi and the rest of the group. It’s not just Marc.”

Following a shaky first period, the Rangers responded by playing far more responsibly in their own zone as the game went on. After allowing 13 first period shots, Blueshirts defenders limited the Canes to five shots in the second period.

Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist praised his defensemen for stepping up during Thursday’s victory.

“They accepted the challenge – big time,” Lundqvist said. “They played confident.”

Vigneault re-inserted Matt Hunwick in the lineup, opting to scratch error-prone Mike Kostka. Hunwick has been far more dependable than Kostka in a small sampling of preseason and regular season appearances.

Earning a victory over a Carolina team that is missing Jeff Skinner, the Staal brothers and Andrej Sekera is one thing. Impressing against a hot-firing 3-0-1 San Jose Sharks team on Sunday will be a far more difficult challenge.

The Rangers must put in a defensively stout performance on home ice on Sunday to earn a victory over a Sharks team loaded with star names. Any miscue or blown coverage will be punished by a Sharks feeding frenzy.

We’ll have a better idea whether the Rangers have flipped the switch in the right direction on Sunday.

Follow Sean on Twitter — @HartnettHockey.

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