NEW YORK - Only 12 days ago, the Rangers buried the Flyers - with already nearly 2 feet of snow on the ground - in their first matchup of the season at the Wachovia Center.

Flyers coach Peter Laviolette was forced to call a timeout less than 5 minutes into the game with his team trailing, 1-0.

Last night, it was the Flyers' turn to return the favor.

"We remembered what happened a couple weeks ago," Danny Briere said. "These guys played well in our building, and we owed it to them. That's the mentality we came into this game with. We [didn't] want to stop."

Goal after goal, there was no letup in the Flyers in front of a packed house at Madison Square Garden. Behind a hat trick from Simon Gagne, the Flyers pounded New York, 6-0, from nearly the drop of the puck.

The win moved the Flyers into a tie for eighth place in the Eastern Conference.

Gagne's first game back in the lineup after abdominal surgery on Nov. 2 was that game against the Rangers on Dec. 19. After posting 34 goals last season, he said he wanted to get back to his old scoring self by the New Year.

He can consider this a consolation prize for not being selected yesterday to the Canadian Olympic team. Gagne nearly tripled his goal total for the season (he has five) by turning the natural hat trick, which helped carry the Flyers into tomorrow's Winter Classic against the Boston Bruins with their fourth consecutive victory.

"It's only my sixth game back since the surgery," Gagne said. "It's still not like I want to [be]. When you score three goals, it's definitely helping your confidence as a player. It's starting to feel pretty good.

"Every time you come here to Madison Square Garden, it's fun to beat them. They were right before us in the standings. Before the Winter Classic, this game was almost more important than the game we are going to play [tomorrow]."

It was Gagne's second career hat trick at Madison Square Garden and the third of his career.

Blair Betts scored only 54 seconds into the game to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead when a fluke rebound caromed off the glass right out front.

Nearly 10 minutes later, off a turnover forced by Jeff Carter, Mike Richards moved the puck to a wide-open Briere - who faked out Henrik Lundqvist in front of the net.

Not 90 seconds after Briere's goal, Claude Giroux blasted a rebound by Lundqvist, and this time, it was Rangers coach John Tortorella calling a timeout. This time, the Flyers had an authoritative 3-0 lead.

"It was nice to come into their building and play really aggressive on the puck," Laviolette said.

The Flyers chased a frustrated Lundqvist - who was already slamming his stick on the crossbar after Briere's goal - out of the net in only 20 minutes. Tortorella yanked him after a period.

Backup Chad Johnson was no better for New York. Brandon Dubinsky owes Johnson at least a few meals for his undesirable debut at the Garden.

Dubinsky turned the puck over to Gagne, who skated in all alone on Johnson and toasted him to the short side 23 seconds into the second period - on his first shot faced in the NHL, no less.

"Coming out for that second period, we wanted to destroy quickly," Chris Pronger said. "We wanted to make sure we stayed aggressive and on the offensive. We got a goal coming out of that first shift - that was a boost for us and obviously another nail in the coffin for them."

Gagne added two more goals - one on the power play - and Michael Leighton pitched a shutout in net in his fourth straight start. The Flyers netted five goals before New York posted 10 shots.

"It was baby steps in Tampa," Pronger said. "With each successive game, we've gotten better and better. It's up to us to continue and push ourselves and play complete games."

Now that they can finally focus on the Winter Classic - and have fun at today's skate-around in Boston's Fenway Park - the Flyers can put questions from their skid that took them to hell and back on ice. For now.

"You're not going to gain any confidence by holding your head down and moping around," Pronger said. "In the toughest circumstances, you've got to try and push yourself to get over the hump. Hopefully, we've done that."

Slap shots

Scott Hartnell was the only Flyer to play less than 11 minutes . . . New York rookie defenseman Michael Del Zotto finished as a minus-3 . . . Mike Richards was a plus-3 and Danny Syvret a plus-3 . . . Arron Asham and Braydon Coburn teamed up for 10 hits (five each) . . . Simon Gagne fired a game-high six shots on goal . . . The Flyers were 4-for-4 on the penalty kill and 1-for-2 on the power play. *