The New York Rangers took their first step toward a nearly impossible goal tonight by defeating the Montreal Canadiens, 2-0.

They were faced with a three-game deficit in their best-of-seven NHL Prince of Wales Conference final series with the Canadiens when they skated onto the ice at Madison Square Garden.

There was little to lose -- especially given that they were never expected to be playing anything except maybe golf in the month of May -- and they won by playing more like the Canadiens had in the first three games. Bob Brooke's first-period goal off a mistake by goalie Patrick Roy and Tomas Sandstrom's third-period goal off a miscue by defenseman Petr Svoboda allowed the Rangers to win, sending the series back to Montreal for Friday's fifth game.

"In the first three games," said Rangers captain Don Maloney, "they played excellent defense and took advantage of our mistakes. Tonight, they came out and played real hard in the first period. We just sat back and waited and waited for them to make a mistake. The first goal came on one and so did the second.

"Hopefully, we can get them back in their building, maybe they'll press a little and we'll get another great game from John."

Goalie John Vanbiesbrouck took back some of the goaltending glory that Roy had gobbled after the first three games, especially the third when Montreal's youngster stopped 44 of 47 shots. Tonight, the Canadiens were the aggressors early, but Vanbiesbrouck left them with nothing to show for their efforts. He made 30 saves.

"The effort from John Vanbiesbrouck was vintage Vanbiesbrouck," said Rangers Coach Ted Sator. "He was superb."

Said Montreal's Mats Naslund, "He was sharper than the game Monday. He made a few real good saves, especially in the first period."

Naslund tested Vanbiesbrouck during an early penalty to Brian MacLellan, but the Rangers had the best opportunity during the manpower disadvantage. Montreal defenseman Chris Chelios was being generous and gave the puck away to New York's Kelly Miller in the slot. Miller's shot missed wide, but the play was an omen.

The Rangers' Bob Crawford went off for high-sticking Mike McPhee at 15:09. Shorthanded, New York's Tom Laidlaw dumped the puck into the corner of the Montreal zone. Roy went behind the net to stop the puck as it came around the boards. As it was coming to him, he lifted his head a bit, the puck caromed off his skate, and Maloney redirected it to Brooke. He put a backhand into the empty net at 16:56.

"It's tough when you allow a goal like that," Montreal Coach Jean Perron said, "but Patrick has played so well and made so many big saves for us, it's tough to blame him for it."

And Roy played well the rest of the way.

The lead in hand, the Rangers concentrated on playing good defense. They took the body, played clutch-and-grab. The second and third periods were filled with penalties, which hurt the Canadiens especially. They couldn't keep Naslund and Bobby Smith on the ice enough to create scoring chances and then the Rangers got their second goal during a four-on-four situation.

"They played a better defensive game," Naslund said. "They didn't get caught in our end so they didn't give up as many two-on-ones and three-on-twos. They played a more disciplined game."

The Rangers got the clincher at 13:28 of the third period. The Canadiens had the puck in the Rangers' end, but lost control and Brooke fed Sandstrom, who had gotten behind Svoboda. Sandstrom carried into the Montreal zone and fired a low slap shot from outside the left circle. It caught the far post and ricocheted into the net.

The Canadiens were grasping for straws as time ran down. Perron asked to have Vanbiesbrouck's stick measured to see if was too wide.

"The stick -- we knew about it, we took a chance and we were wrong," Perron said.

When referee Kerry Fraser found Vanbiesbrouck's wood to be within legal bounds, the Canadiens received a two-minute penalty for delay of game and a gesture from Vanbiesbrouck that, well, probably wasn't taught to him by his mom.

But then the Rangers are fighting for their lives. Only two teams -- the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and 1975 New York Islanders -- have come back from 3-0 deficits to win a series.

"I feel a lot better tonight," Vanbiesbrouck said. "I was despondent the other night. Things were coming to an end, but we stopped them. It's the first level of a pyramid. I'm not saying we'll win it all, but we still have a season left."