The New York Rangers are in a very deep hole.
They thoroughly outplayed the Montreal Canadiens tonight in front of 17,374 at Madison Square Garden, and were it not for a tremendous performance by 20-year-old Montreal goalie Patrick Roy, the Rangers would be smiling.
But after Roy had turned away the last of New York's 47 shots (including 13 in overtime), the Rangers were losers, 4-3, on Claude Lemieux's score at 9:41 of the extra period that followed a somewhat controversial play.
It was the only lead of the game for the Canadiens, who now hold a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven Prince of Wales Conference final series. The fourth game of the series -- and possibly the last of the Rangers' magical spring -- will be here Wednesday.
Only twice in National Hockey League history (Toronto, 1942; New York Islanders, 1975) have teams come back from a three-game deficit to win a series.
The winning goal came moments after yet another flurry of activity in the Montreal zone. The puck was coming to Rangers defenseman Willie Huber at the right point, but as he pulled his stick back, the puck hit a piece of the habitually bad Garden ice and hopped. The puck slid past Huber, then Montreal's Mike McPhee picked it up at center ice and fed Lemieux on a two-on-none break. Lemieux beat John Vanbiesbrouck to the glove side.
But the Rangers cried foul, claiming James Patrick, the defenseman on the other side, was prevented from getting back by linesman Ray Scapinello. "It was James' position to back up," said Rangers Coach Ted Sator, "and he ran over Mr. Scapinello at center ice."
"Should he be at center ice or 10 feet off the boards?" Patrick said. "I see it bounce over Willie's stick, I pivot and hit [Scapinello]."
Scapinello declined to comment on the play, according to Rangers spokesman Vince Casey.
The Canadiens were outshot, 47-29, despite a 15-6 edge they had in the second period. In the third period, while the Rangers were continuing to test Roy, the Canadiens had four shots. They scored on two of them and another was more of a dump-in.
But, as Lemieux said, when asked about the lack of offense, "It's a matter of luck, it's a matter of patience, it's a matter of confidence. That confidence can help as much as anything. When I'm going in on the breakaway, I had the feeling that I would put it in the net. Just like we knew Patrick would make the saves. Patrick had confidence. You knew he had the puck or it was under him. He's always confident."
Except for the first goal, Vanbiesbrouck can't be faulted much, however. After Stephane Richer, on the power play, bounced a pass off Vanbiesbrouck's skate for a 1-1 tie at 6:00 of the first period, the Canadiens scored on the power play and on two breakaways.
Kelly Miller gave New York a 1-0 lead, before Richer tied it. Then Mike Ridley scored for a 2-1 Rangers lead. That held up until Mats Naslund beat Vanbiesbrouck on a breakaway at 5:06 of the third period.
It looked as if the Rangers finally had won it when Bob Brooke scored at 12:54 of the third. But then with 2:04 left, Bobby Smith sent it into overtime with a powerplay goal.
In his disappointment, Vanbiesbrouck complimented his counterpart.
"I have to tip my hat to him," he said. "They seemed to take advantage of their opportunities. I've watched a lot of hockey games and I've seen a lot of times where a team is in another team's zone for a long time and then the other team comes down and scores on their one chance."
Vanbiesbrouck has carried the Rangers this year and Roy is doing the same for the Canadiens now.
The Garden faithful greeted him with a somewhat mocking chant of "Rooo-waah, Rooo-waaah, Rooo-waaah." This was intended to unsettle the 20-year-old, but didn't.
"The crowd stimulated me and gave me a good feeling," said Roy, who, nonetheless, tried to take the sting out of their cheers by adjusting the straps on his pads at certain crucial points. "When they say my name . . . . I like that, it made me want to play better. I like the attention.
"It's my best feeling," he said of the win. "For the first time we won when I received over 40 shots."
In overtime, the Rangers sent a flurry of shots at him, but he responded each time.
"The goaltender can make a big difference in that situation," he said. "When you can smell the Stanley Cup finals, it's a big feeling. When you're 20, you like that kind of game."