The Montreal Canadiens took the home-ice advantage away from the New York Rangers tonight in the Stanley Cup finals while observers were thinking perhaps the National Hockey League should take the Madison Square ice away permanently.
The perennial champions grabbed a 2-0 lead in the first period and, except for what goalie Ken Dryden termed a "strange goal" 14 minutes from the end, the Rangers had little chance to forestall the eventual 4-1 outcome.
Montreal now owns a 2-1 advantage in the best-of-seven series.
In the final 10 minutes, Montreal defensemen rarely roamed past the red line, merey hanging back to assure the absence of two-on-one or three-on-two breaks. On the marsh-mallowy surface set down after this afternoon's circus performance, there was no opportunity for the Rangers to evade that kind of defense.
"On this ice, it is tough to handle the puck," Montreal's Bob Gainey said. "Anybody who tries to handle the puck has trouble. A pass you think is on your stick goes over your stick. If you're ahead, it's not that important as long as the puck is out of the way. But if you're behind, it has to be on your stick."
The Rangers fell behind permanently on Montreal's first shot of the game. It came on a power play at 7:27 and it was set up by a ridiculous high sticking violation by New York's Walt Tkaczuk.
Gainey and Tkaczuk, not for the first time in this series, had exchanged slashes, but Tkaczuk, unsatisfied, then belted Gainey across the chest with his stick and drew a double minor to Gainey's single.
So Tkaczuk was still in the box when Jacques Lemaire, unguarded along the rear boards, waited until Ranger Dave Maloney started for him and then passed to Steve Shutt, the man Maloney had been guarding. Shutt caught the net's far corner from the right-wing circle.
The ice and close checking combined to limit each team to one shot over the first 12 minutes. When play opened up a bit, so did the Canadiens.
Doug Risebrough, playing with a birdcage guard around his broken nose, took a drop pass from Yvon Lambert on a three-on-two break and fired a 25-footer off goalie John Davidson's skate for his first goal of the playoffs.
The Rangers were having so much difficulty that on each of their first two power-play opportunities they were whistled for icing the puck. On their third extra-man try, only Phil Esposito's hustle averted a third such embarassment.
Nevertheless, the Rangers came alive at 6:06 of the final period. Ron Duguay, facing off with Montreal's Doug Jarvis in the right-wing circle at the Canadien end, whacked the puck toward the left-wing boards. It struck the skate of Montreal's Rejean Houle and caromed into the net.
"I don't think I've ever seen one like that," Dryden said.
"He slapped it sideways, toward the boards, and it hit one of your skates and came in. When you give up a strange goal like that in the third period, no matter how well you're playing it gives the other team a lift; the game is up for grabs. But they never really pressed."
The Canadiens silenced the stirred-up crowd of 17,376 with a squelching score as the clock ground down to 5:12. Yvon Lambert's shot from the left-wing boards struck Mario Tremblay's stake and caromed past Davidson.
Dryden contributed to a fourth goal by lofting the puck to center ice, where Shutt picked it up and fed Lemaire on a three-on-one break. Lemaire filed his 59th career Stanley Cup goal as the Rangers slowed down and watched.
Although the Rangers recorded only 20 shots on goal, Coach Fred Shero said, "We had some good chances, but we were missing the net. A shot missing by inches is usually a better shot than one on the net. There were maybe five shots on goal by each team that were dangerous. The rest were nothing shots."
Game 4 is scheduled here Saturday night, followed two performances of the circus. Whether that will make the ice even worse remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that the first goal is a big one.
"We played well, but we're still playing wiht fire," Gainey said. "The Rangers have the ability to score a lot of goals. But the big thing is that we have a lot of guys playing well, not just the usual 12 or 13. We're a more complete team." CAPTION: Picture, Ranger goalie John Davidson is fall guy and Mario Marios (5) a sullen teammate as Canadiens celebrate Doug Risebrough goal; Picture 2, Rangers' Walt Tkaczuk slams Yvon Lambert on drive to goal. UPI