Somehow, the setting seemed fitting. There had been a circus at Madison Square Garden in the afternoon. And then, as the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers faced each other in Game 3 of the Patrick Division semifinal series, there was a sideshow tonight.

And quite a show it was. In the first period, any crisp body check was sure provocation for a fight. But when it was all over, the Rangers had a 5-2 victory and a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series. Game 4 will be played here tonight.

The Rangers scored four straight goals in the third period -- including three within a 38-second span -- to stun Philadelphia.

After a 6-2 Rangers win in Game 1 and a 2-1 Flyers win in Game 2, in which Philadelphia had a 44-12 shot advantage, somehow this game seemed appropriate. After all, it has been a strange series.

"This game can take twists and turns," Rangers Coach Ted Sator said. "Certainly, this isn't according to the script. But this game was probably as well played as you're going to see. The one thing we are not going to do is lose any respect for that team."

"The place was unbelievable," said Rangers goalie John Vanbiesbrouck. "I've never taken part in anything quite like this. We put ourselves in position to win this series."

And Flyers Coach Mike Keenan said: "They got a big boost. They had every right to be pumped up."

Philadelphia never seemed to gain the upper hand tonight. Though the Flyers held their own through the first two periods, when they took a 2-1 lead on goals by Tim Kerr and Ilkka Sinisalo, they never found a rhythm that allowed them to control the game. Everything they did was an uphill battle.

And the Rangers, who barely outshot Philadelphia, 33-32, eventually were able to capitalize.

New York tied the game at 8:13 of the third period, when winger Kelly Miller took the puck into the right corner, slipped a stiff body check by Ron Sutter and managed to get a pass across the back of the net to Mike Ridley. The center flicked the puck in front to Pierre Larouche, who flipped a point-blank shot past goalie Bob Froese to tie the score at two.

But it was a most improbable turn of events that enabled the Rangers to win. In the last eight minutes, they scored three goals in a 38-second span to easily put the game out of reach.

"We played real well until then," Flyers defenseman Brad Marsh said. "We just fell apart. Once they tied it up, the roof fell apart. They went away to the races, and there wasn't much else we could do."

The collapse began when Philadelphia winger Derrick Smith was assessed a two-minute penalty for tripping with 8:21 left. The Rangers had failed to convert two earlier power play opportunities and were three for 11 in the series.

But Jim Wiemer -- in only his eighth game with New York since his recall from New Haven, where he was the top scoring defenseman in the American Hockey League -- scored on a backhand shot from 25 feet to give the Rangers a 3-2 lead with 7:31 left.

"I wasn't trying to score," Wiemer said. "I was just trying to get a shot on net. Fortunately, it went in."

The goal caused Keenan to call an unusual team meeting in front of the Flyers bench. It didn't help.

Just 13 seconds later, Rangers wing Bob Brooke won a faceoff against Peter Zezel and scooted in from the left circle to beat Froese with a quick wrist shot. Froese was replaced by Chico Resch at 12:43.

Paiement broke in on left wing and centered the puck past Marsh to Ron Greschner, who was breaking down the middle. He fired a 10-foot shot past Resch, who was caught flat-footed. It was the first shot on goal against him, and the Rangers had a 5-2 lead with 6:53 remaining in the game.

Once again, the Flyers were dogged by the Rangers, despite having won six of seven regular-season meetings. They had outscored New York, 29-12, this season. But although the teams split six previous playoff series, the Rangers hold a 9-3 lead in playoff games at the Garden.