After beating the Montreal Canadiens, 2-0, on Wednesday night, the New York Rangers were clinging to a faint ray of hope that the Stanley Cup might be returned to this city for the first time since 1940.

"It keeps us in the ball game," Rangers goalie John Vanbiesbrouck said today after practice in suburban Rye, N.Y., although his team still trails the best-of-seven series, 3-1. "It draws us a little closer."

History clearly is not on the Rangers' side. Only two of 77 teams have come back from 3-0 deficits to win a Stanley Cup series. The Toronto Maple Leafs did it against the Detroit Red Wings in the 1942 Cup finals and the New York Islanders pulled it off in the 1975 quarterfinals against Pittsburgh.

"We had the attitude," Rangers defenseman Tom Laidlaw said, "that they might win the series, but it's not going to be tonight Wednesday . And I think we'll have the same attitude Friday night."

Friday's fifth game will be in The Forum in Montreal.

The Rangers want to play as they did Wednesday night: loose and playing defensive hockey with a healthy dose of clutch-and-grab.

"Same attitude," Vanbiesbrouck said. "We're in the heart of the series, and even though it looks like termination for the New York Rangers, the team is chipping and clutching and grabbing. That's what playoff hockey is all about and it's what we did in the last two series. But I don't think we were doing those things in the beginning of the series -- hitting, getting in there and mixing it up, going to the net hard, crashing it. Montreal was trying to slow it down."

Said Coach Ted Sator: "If you give Montreal's people room to be good, they can be very good. The idea is to shorten the space they can operate in."

The Rangers' Larry Melnyk, who wears a Stanley Cup ring from his days in Edmonton, concurred with Vanbiesbrouck and said the first 10 minutes will go a long way toward determining the outcome.

"The picture I have of tomorrow night is The Forum . . . and them coming out flying and us trying not to get behind in the first 10 minutes," Melnyk said. "I have no doubt they'll come out flying. If we can hold them off, keep our composure, we'll be all right."

The penalities that accompanied that style of play hurt the Canadiens in the second and third periods Wednesday when they were trying to come back.

"We've got to keep our poise," Montreal Coach Jean Perron said. "We need to skate a lot more like we did in the first three games and get scoring chances."

Montreal's Mats Naslund said: "We have to create chances and be more aggressive around the net. And we have to get to the loose pucks."

The Forum presents something of a paradox. The Canadiens have won seven of eight playoff games there this year and they do consider it an asset. But, sometimes the weight of all those banners hanging from the ceiling can be terribly burdensome.

"It will be different in Montreal," Perron said.

"I rather think that if we play well, like we did Wednesday , we can end it at home," Naslund said.

Vanbiesbrouck noted the inherent pressure on the Canadiens.

"They are a good team wherever they play," he said when asked if they were better in The Forum. "But they are under a type of pressure to entertain their fans. Their fans are among the most knowledgeable fans in the game. If the Canadiens aren't playing well, the fans know it. And the players know that the fans know it."

Besides forfeiting any remnants of momentum, if the Canadiens lose Friday, they would have to return to New York for Game 6 Sunday. If a seventh game is necessary, it would be in Montreal.

"We're still one game away from being in a good situation," Vanbiesbrouck said. "And I'm sure they don't want to lose in Montreal and have to come back here."

Perron conceded as much. "We're going to win the series," he said, "but we can't afford to lose in Montreal."

The Rangers might get a lift if Ron Greschner, who has been out since breaking his hand in the fifth game of the Philadelphia series, can play Friday night. Sator wasn't ruling it out. "We won't know until the pregame skate," he said.