The Montreal Canadiens closed the book on the New York Rangers' fairy-tale postseason tonight and climbed the penultimate step toward a 23rd Stanley Cup.
The Canadiens limited New York to two shots in the third period and posted a 3-1 triumph, concluding the best-of-seven series in five games. They became the first Adams Division team to win the Prince of Wales Conference championship since the divisional setup was established five years ago.
Claude Lemieux, Bobby Smith and Bob Gainey scored the goals that wiped out the Rangers' early 1-0 lead. New York goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck stopped 26 shots but was beaten on two power-play goals and one crazy bounce.
Of the stifling third period, Smith said: "We didn't want to lay back with just a one-goal lead, and we didn't want to give them a single chance to get back in the game. It wasn't easy, but we finally got the goal we needed."
That goal, by Gainey, came on a sudden turn of events after Vanbiesbrouck had made some remarkable saves to keep New York in contention.
At one end, New York's Reijo Ruotsalainen took a shot that struck the rear boards and caromed into the skates of goalie Patrick Roy, who managed to twist around and smother the puck.
Moments later, at the other end, Montreal's Dave Maley picked off an attempted clear with his stick chest high and took a shot that handcuffed Vanbiesbrouck. The puck slipped behind the goalie, who couldn't locate it before Gainey tapped it into the net.
"This is like a good dream," said Roy, who had 19 saves and lowered his incredible playoff goals-against mark to 1.77. "This is all a bonus for us. Nobody expected us to be in the final of the Stanley Cup, so it's a big feeling for everybody."
Just as there was no untoward celebration in Montreal's dressing room, with a final series against St. Louis or Calgary beginning next Friday, there was no great disappointment in the Rangers', since the club, which finished at 44-46-6 overall, could only be considered a playoff overachiever.
"I'm proud for us to play in the semifinals, and nobody can take away our Patrick Division championship," Vanbiesbrouck said. "We were just a step away from the Stanley Cup final, and we worked so darn hard to get to this position, so we have to be disappointed. But we can hold our heads high as a team."
Roy allowed the Rangers only nine goals in the five games, and he shut out Pierre Larouche, who had produced the key goals in New York's six-game upset of Washington.
"It is difficult to come in here and play," said Larouche, a member of Montreal's Stanley Cup champions in 1978 and 1979. "You get no breaks from the ref, for one thing, and another thing is that something roams over this building.
"They've got more than five players on the ice. They've got the Rocket Richard and Guy Lafleur and Ken Dryden. That's tough to beat."
Asked who had covered him besides Gainey, Larouche laughed and said: "It must have been Claude Provost," a great checking winger during the 1960s.
The overflow crowd of 18,076 was extremely hostile to the Rangers. Tonight the fans booed and chanted "Go, Habs, go" throughout the "Star-Spangled Banner," and they had to be warned to stop throwing debris on the ice.
The Canadiens had vowed that New York would not get away with what they said were cheap shots in Game 4 at the Garden, and they backed up the threat with some cheap shots of their own. The most flagrant was Craig Ludwig's first-period elbow that sent Kelly Miller to the hospital with a concussion. It cost Ludwig a two-minute penalty.
Still, the Rangers were able to jump in front early, as Tomas Sandstrom, from just outside the crease, was able to deflect a shot by Mike Ridley.
The Canadiens, who came close when Mats Naslund hit a post, managed to tie it late in the period, with New York's Tom Laidlaw off for hooking. Gaston Gingras threaded a centering pass between defender James Patrick's legs into the low slot, where Lemieux pried the puck away from two Rangers and flipped it into the net.
There was a humorous sidelight to that goal. Naslund, flattened in the left-wing corner, lay on the ice in apparent pain while play continued. Then, when Lemieux scored his ninth playoff goal, Naslund rose and leaped to embrace him.
Smith's winner came at 4:41 of the second period, seven seconds after Bob Brooke was penalized for hooking Naslund. Larry Robinson lined a shot off the rear boards, and Lemieux was able to tip the rebound into the slot for Smith to convert his 29th Stanley Cup goal.
"I swung and it hit his Vanbiesbrouck's glove and the goal post, then fell in the net," Smith said. "You knew it was a big one, the way Patrick Roy was playing. I can't overstate what he has meant to this team -- that's no secret."
Both Lemieux and Guy Carbonneau hit posts before Gainey's 22nd playoff goal wrapped it up.