Bob Gainey produced the winning goal and Patrick Roy turned back 26 New York shots tonight as the Montreal Canadiens edged the Rangers, 2-1, in the opening game of the National Hockey League's Prince of Wales Conference championship.
All the scoring took place in the second period, with the Rangers' Willie Huber matching Mats Naslund's goal before Gainey put Montreal ahead to stay by skating down the slot and converting Chris Chelios' pass.
"The puck hit me more than I hit the puck," Gainey said. "It hit near the heel of my stick, and I think it was a couple of inches off the ice. It was a good goal, though. It made it 2-1 and it ended that way."
New York, limited to one shot in the first 13 minutes of the third period, tested Roy six times down the stretch without success.
"Each game I get more experience and it makes me more confident," said Roy, a rookie whose playoff-leading goals-against average is 1.71. "I want to play aggressive, and when I move out to challenge, I'm in the game."
He challenged shooters frequently, because there were a number of good chances on both sides. The Rangers' John Vanbiesbrouck had 28 saves, and each team clipped several posts.
"There was fine goaltending at both ends," said Montreal's Bobby Smith, who set up Naslund's goal. "Patrick has been playing extremely well, and we've been hearing of John Vanbiesbrouck's feats. He sure didn't disappoint us tonight."
The game was mild in the hitting department and lacked the intensity of the recently concluded Rangers-Washington and Montreal-Hartford series, something for which Smith had a ready explanation.
"We played the Hartford Whalers 15 times this year," Smith said. "There's something about playing teams in your division. But you'll see this pick up as it goes on, with so much at stake."
If familiarity breeds contempt, the NHL's unbalanced schedule sometimes breeds uninterest. This was the first game between the Rangers and Canadiens since Jan. 10. They last met in a playoff series in 1979, when the Canadiens beat New York in a five-game final.
"We haven't had time to look at the Rangers or see them play," Gainey said. "The last series got more intense as the series went on, and my feeling is that's the way this will go. You adjust to the other team."
Both clubs had numerous scoring chances before Naslund broke the ice at 3:08 of the second period. Smith made a quick move to control an attempted clearing pass by Rob Whistle that caromed off the side boards in center ice. Smith's rinkwide pass hit Naslund in the left-wing circle, and the speedy Swede cut across the goal mouth and beat Vanbiesbrouck with a backhander.
"Twenty-nine times out of 30 the puck stops in somebody's feet or gets behind you," Smith said. "This time it wound up on my stick. Mats and I have been working on two-on-ones a great deal in practice and it paid off, because we worked it perfectly."
The Rangers tied it up on a power play at 8:48, beating a penalty-killing unit that had permitted four goals in 42 playoff chances. Brian Skrudland was off for an ill-timed punch at Wilf Paiement when Willie Huber put a 45-footer past Roy, who was screened by Mike Allison.
The Rangers' Tomas Sandstrom hit a post before Gainey broke the tie. Chelios skated down the right wing and slipped past defender Reijo Ruotsalainen, then deposited the puck on Gainey's stick in the crease.
"I went around their defenseman and Vanbiesbrouck challenged me," Chelios said. "I passed over to Bob and he took care of the rest. I didn't know what to expect from the Rangers, so I just concentrated on Pierre Larouche and guys like that. We haven't had time to really think about it after beating Hartford."
The best-of-seven series will resume here Saturday before shifting to New York for games Monday and Wednesday.