The Montreal Canadiens knew the joy of victory twice tonight, although they never led the New York Rangers until Serge Savard's backhander produced the official 4-3 triumph after 7 minutes 25 seconds of overtime.

A minute earlier, Larry Robinson apparently had whipped a 55-foot shot into the net, but the goal judge declined to turn on the red light and referee Andy Van Hellemond was too far away to do anything except confirm the washout.

"There was no sound, so if it didn't go in the net, what did it hit?" Robinson asked. "It hit (goalie John) Davidson's stick and went up in the top of the net and came back out. When you don't call that one, usually the way things go, the other team comes back and scores."

Instead, after Montreal's Guy Lafleur was tied up by Mario Marois, Robinson grabbed the loose puck and beat Davidson on the short side.

"That goal meant two games for us," Savard said. "If we lost, we'd be tied. I just figured, if nobody wants to go, I'll go. I was in close in the third period and Davidson said, 'What the hell are you doing here? Go back to the blue line." I told him, 'I'll be back.'"

Montreal now holds a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven final, with the fifth game in the Forum Monday night.

Each team scored on its first shot of the game and each scorer, Pat Hickey of the Rangers and Rejean Houle of the Canadiens, was netting his first goal of the playoffs. New York's Don Murdoch recorded his seventh late in the first period and the Rangers went into the first intermission with a 2-1 lead.

The Rangers' strategy was evident on the first shift as Montreal goalie Ken Dryden, handling the puck along the rear boards, took a heavy check from Ranger Eddie Johnstone. Dryden, 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, threw the 5-9, 175-pound Johnstone to the ice before diving into the crease.

Undaunted, Johnstone dealt stiff checks to 6-2, 200-pound Brian Engblom and 6-2, 190-pound Bob Gainey. Teammate Carol Vadnais joined the Bouncing check brigade by smashing Lefleur into the boards and Ron Greschner racked up Yvon Lambert.

Hickey ended his playoff drought with a freak score at 1:19. Dave Maloney dumped the puck to the rear boards and Hickey, after retrieving it, tried to center the puck into the slot. It struck Dryden's skate and caromed behind him.

At the other end, Davidson went behind his net to try to play the puck after Houle dumped it down the left wing. Davidson's stick hit the board and the puck kept sliding. Gainey corralled it and passed in front to Houle, who hit the open net with Davidson still on the other side.

Davidson made a fine stick save on Steve Shutt, who skated past defenseman Marois, to maintain the tie before Murdoch sent the Rangers in front.

Phil Esposito, skating into the leftwing circle, was pulled down by Montreal's Pierre Mondou, bringing a delayed penalty signal from Van Hellemond. As Esposito went to the ice, he managed to send a pass into the slot to the unguarded Murdoch, who connected at 17:03.

The Rangers tried to sit on their lead and did not register a shot on goal for the first 15 minutes of the second period. Greschner finally sending a routine 50-footer in Dryden's direction.

That style of play against the Canadiens is the equivalent of a slow suicide and, although Davidson played heroically, he finally was beaten by Lambert's sharply angled drive into the far corner from the outer hashmarks of the left-wing circle.

The goal, Lambert's fifth of the playoffs, came with 1:55 remaining in the second period. The play developed slowly, Houle carrying the puck out of his end and passing it ahead to Lambert.

The Rangers were a different team at the start of the third period, carrying the play to the Canadiens. Anders Hedberg drilled one from the rightwing circle, but Dryden got his glove on it and flipped it in the air, then batted it away with his stick.

Quick passes by Dave Maloney and his brother Don set up Esposito in the right-wing circle and his drive skipped off Dryden, who attempted to block it with his glove while on his knees. The goal was Esposito's eighth of the playoffs and 58th career Stanley Cup goal.

That came at 4:26 and 2 minutes, 1 second later it was tied again, at 3-3. Davidson cleared the puck into the corner at his left and Gainey and Dave Maloney arrived at it together, Gainey knocked Maloney down, recovered the puck and, using Vadnais as a screen, beat Davidson low on the glove side.