Rangers, in the Garden, have the golden opportunity

Andrei Markov of the Montreal Canadiens celebrates his
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Andrei Markov of the Montreal Canadiens celebrates his second-period goal against the Rangers with his teammates during game three of the Eastern Conference Finals at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, May 22, 2014.(Credit: Jim McIsaac)

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The custom-made inspirational messages were displayed on the giant center-ice scoreboard: Former New York City police officer Steven MacDonald's plea to go "above and beyond"; Liam Neeson's voice imploring the crowd to be "United in Blue" and the highlights from the Rangers previous two wins in Montreal.

In a way, Thursday night had the feel of a spring Garden party, a reunion in the Eastern Conference finals, a night that could put the Rangers on the threshold of the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 20 years.

After all, the Rangers hadn't been at Madison Square Garden in 11 days, winning Game 7 of the previous round in Pittsburgh, and taking the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals at Bell Centre.

So they were in a good position, with a golden opportunity, to increase their control of the best-of-seven series with a win.

The last time they were up 2-0 in a series didn't turn out so well. That was against the Capitals in 2009, a series in which they also were up 3-1, before losing in seven.

Although the streaking Rangers were looking for their sixth consecutive playoff win, they have not been dominant at home in the postseason, just 4-3.

The chance to move to 3-0 in a critical series does not come along that often, not since a sweep of Atlanta in the conference quarterfinals in 2007. Before that, it was against Washington in the conference semifinals in the magical year of 1994, which they won in five games. Game 4 is Sunday night here.

"We're a confident group," said coach Alain Vigneault, "with our total attention on what we need to do to have success. Since we've had a longer stretch here in between Game 2 and Game 3, we've been able to go through a couple of areas that we feel we must be better tonight, and we've gone through areas that we need to continue to do well. We know that they're going to be ready."

Henrik Lundqvist, who was playing his 83rd consecutive postseason game Thursday night, had 40 career playoff wins, one shy of tying Mike Richter for the most in team history.

During the playoffs, he leads all goaltenders in wins (10), goals against average (1.93) and save percentage (.934).

For the Canadiens, it was Dustin Tokarski, 24, who made 27 saves in Game 2, which the Rangers won 3-1. The rookie was making his first playoff start in New York, replacing Carey Price, who was knocked out of the series with a right knee injury. "I thought [Tokarski] handled it really well for the first game, especially at the Bell Centre," coach Michel Therrien said. "It's a different pressure when you're on the road."

And then Therrien embellished the matchup even more: "This is the best team we've played in the playoffs."

Whether the Rangers are worthy of that designation is far from determined. The Canadiens felt that had played well in Game 2, and that they would continue to improve.

With Price, who was 8-3-1 in the playoffs and had a career year, the Canadiens swept the Lightning -- who were without their No. 1 goalie, Ben Bishop -- and then defeated the Bruins in Boston in Game 7.

The Rangers edged the Flyers in seven games, and then, after falling behind the Penguins 3-1, won the next three games to advance to this round.

The winner of this series will face the Western Conference champs, either the Los Angeles Kings or the Chicago Blackhawks, in the Stanley Cup Final.

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