Duane Sutter's goal with 7 1/2 minutes left thwarted a frantic comeback by the New York Rangers tonight, instead carrying the New York Islanders to a 5-3 victory and a commanding 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven Stanley Cup quarterfinal series.

The crowd of 17,390 turned Madison Square Garden into a maelstrom of noise when Cam Connor converted a pass from the fans' favorite, Nick Fotiu, to lift the Rangers into a 3-3 tie with 13:41 remaining.

The Rangers forechecked brilliantly over the next six minutes, maintaining steady offensive pressure. But Islander goalie Bill Smith, boosting his playoff record to 51-20, made superb stops on Dave Maloney and Barry Beck to keep it even.

Then, in typical Islander fashion, the two-time Stanley Cup champions capitalized on the one opportunity that came their way. Sutter, who had posted only one goal in his last 22 games, managed to corral a deflected pass from Wayne Merrick on the right wing and poked the puck between the legs of goalie Steve Weeks, off the far post into the net, despite being tripped by Dave Maloney.

"I knocked it down and it came up on my stick," Sutter said. "I had a little bit of room and I cut in front. I was going to deke and put it on my backhand, but Weeks went to poke check me and he brought his other leg out. It went between his legs, hit the post and went in. It happened so fast, I was surprised to see it go in."

That goal, combined with some more good work by Smith, took the heart out of the Rangers and the crowd. Smith stopped a Dave Maloney shot and Mike Allison's rebound with six minutes left. Mike Rogers shot wide on a Rob McClanahan setup with two minutes remaining, then Islander Butch Goring sealed the verdict by scoring into an empty net with 35 seconds on the clock.

The Islanders overcame considerable adversity during an 81-second stretch of the second period before earning their seventh victory in nine playoff games at Madison Square Garden.

With the score tied, 1-1, at 3:10 of the second period, Islander Mike McEwen apparently scored on a drive from the right point. However, as the puck was en route, Islander Bryan Trottier pulled down defenseman Carol Vadnais and both players banged into goalie John Davidson. Referee Bruce Hood disallowed the goal and penalized Trottier.

With the Islanders short-handed, Davidson barely beat Goring to the puck inside the Ranger blueline and lofted the puck into the stands. While Islander Coach Al Arbour stood on his bench screaming for a delay-of-game penalty, Hood merely indicated a faceoff.

Moments later, Goring could not handle a Billy Carroll setup in front of the Ranger net on a short-handed break. The Rangers quickly turned the play around and had a four-on-two advantage at the other end.

Don Maloney, fed on the left wing by Robbie Ftorek, shot the puck into Smith, who fell on it. The Rangers celebrated, the red light belatedly beamed and Hood ruled, to the Islanders' anger, that Smith had carried the puck into the net and the Rangers were ahead, 2-1.

Instead of bemoaning their fate, the Islanders roared back. After Smith made a big save on Allison, Denis Potvin beat Davidson with a 45-footer at the other end. Then Clark Gillies' power-play goal, off Trottier's setup at 13:08, sent the Islanders in front, 3-2.

It also sent Davidson to the showers, with a pulled muscle in his right leg, and left Weeks to give up the decisive score by Sutter. Davidson, who had not played an NHL game since Oct. 14 because of a back injury, had been thrown to the Islanders after recuperating during an eight-game stretch at Springfield, Mass.

It was Davidson who engineered the "Miracle of 33rd Street" in 1979, when the Rangers ousted the Islanders in a six-game semifinal. With Game 5 coming up Wednesday at Nassau Coliseum, the Rangers are desperately in need of another miracle.