NEW YORK — Madison Square Garden underwent a recent $1 billion transformation, and yet it will have another completely different feeling once the New York Rangers hit the ice in the Eastern Conference finals.
Gone will be the fear of impending doom that enveloped the club during its second-round comeback against Pittsburgh. Missing will be the nerves that any goal or loss could mean the end of the season.
Suddenly, the Rangers are the front-runners against the Montreal Canadiens, and their fans now have the chance to celebrate the ride with them.
"Having fan support is obviously huge," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "Unconditional love, it's something that's really beneficial to a team."
New York is riding a five-game winning streak, but four of those victories came on the road — two in Pittsburgh when the Rangers erased a 3-1 series deficit, and the first two in this matchup with Montreal.
The Rangers will skate at the Garden on Thursday night with a series lead for the first time since Game 2 of the first round against Philadelphia 15 games ago.
"It's a good feeling, but we know we've accomplished nothing yet," forward Martin St. Louis said. "We're trying to prepare for a Montreal team that's going to come out with a lot of energy. We know that. This is a big game for everybody. We know where the series is, and it's a big opportunity for us."
Nothing is a guarantee, but to take a 3-0 series lead would set the Rangers up for their first trip to the Stanley Cup finals since 1994.
Since New York fell way behind Pittsburgh with a dispirited home loss in Game 4, the Rangers have been playing with a sense of desperation. It didn't reset once they eliminated the Penguins, and so far they have shown no signs they will let the Canadiens recover.
"I feel every game is a must-win in the playoffs," St. Louis said. "You go into every game understanding what can happen with a loss and what can happen with a win. It's a lot of momentum shifting, a buildup in the playoffs, and you want to make sure you keep it as long as you can."
The Canadiens' mindset is to regroup and play the kind of road game the Rangers did by jumping on them.
Montreal is still dealing with the loss of No. 1 goalie Carey Price, who was knocked out of the series by injury in the opener, but now is trying to rally around third-stringer Dustin Tokarski. The inexperienced goalie, who has played in only 11 career NHL games, got the surprise nod by coach Michel Therrien in Game 2 over regular backup Peter Budaj and was tabbed again Wednesday to start in Game 3.
Struggling forward Thomas Vanek was dropped to the fourth line in practice on Wednesday alongside Danny Briere and Brandon Prust in another potential shake-up.
"Don't read too much, OK?" Therrien said. "They might change tomorrow."
Whatever the lineup looks like, the Canadiens have adopted a motto of no excuses as the series shifts to New York.
"We lost the first two games. We've got to do something different," Canadiens captain Brian Gionta said Wednesday in Montreal before the team flew south. "But at the same time, we had a pretty good game in Game 2. We've just got to find ways to get more goals and get to them a little more offensively."
They netted only two in a blowout loss in the opener and then scored one on Monday in a 3-1 loss. The Canadiens grabbed what had been an all-important first goal, but they lost the lead just 17 seconds later and were trailing 2-1 before the first period ended.
Henrik Lundqvist was the main reason the Rangers were ahead after holding off an early attack and then a third-period surge in which he stopped all 19 Canadiens shots. He made 40 saves overall.
"We are down two, and we are going on the road," said forward Max Pacioretty, who scored the lone Montreal goal in Game 2. "Obviously, we would have liked to have Game 2, but we can only worry about Game 3. We've got to be better.
"We have to make life difficult for their goalie, and if we do that, I like our team's chances."
Pacioretty, a Connecticut native, is also looking forward to the atmosphere at the Garden, even though he will be wearing an enemy sweater.
"I love MSG," he said. "I grew up watching games there. I love going there. I haven't played in the finished building yet, so this will be fun for me."
One person who hopes to be back on the ice on Thursday is Rangers forward Derick Brassard, who was injured early in the opener and missed all of Game 2. He went through a full practice on Wednesday and was waiting to meet with the medical staff and Vigneault to see if he would rejoin the lineup.
Fellow forward Benoit Pouliot sat out for a maintenance day.