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In the final weeks of the regular season the Rangers were in a four-team race for the final three playoff spots, fighting the Bruins, Flyers, and Canadiens. We all know how it ended. Now that the first round of the playoffs is in the books, very few people believed before the playoffs began that the Bruins (6th seed), Flyers (7th), and Canadiens (8th) would have won their first round match-up. Would the Rangers have advanced to the second round if they qualified for a playoff seed, as the three teams they fought for a playoff spot have?

The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Washington Capitals (#1 seed in the East) Wednesday night in D.C., upsetting the team that won the Presidents’ Trophy in seven games. Montreal showed exactly how to beat the Capitals – play the game at a rapid tempo; play up to the Capitals’ speed. They closed in quickly on every loose puck, flashed passes from tape to tape with pinpoint accuracy. They chased after every loose puck, attempting to gain possession each time. That’s something the Rangers did not do on a consistent basis all year. You have to know how to win the puck if you want to win against the best.

Montreal won this series for a couple more reasons. They cleared the front of the net, blocked a ton of shots, and got stellar goaltending. On just about every odd-man rush, the Canadiens did a good job of getting between the puck and the net, while closing down a majority of the open passing lanes. Later in the series, Montreal’s defenseman were terrific in clearing the crease, allowing goaltender Jaroslav Halak to have a clear sight on a lot of the shots he faced. In game seven, Washington’s forwards started drifting away from the net on odd-man rushes, resulting in no chances for deflections or rebounds. They looked tentative to crash the net. A big, crease-clearing defenseman (along with Marc Staal) is certainly something the Rangers have been missing. If the defensemen clear the front of the net, it makes the goalie’s job much easier.

To display how well the Canadiens blocked shots and sacrificed their bodies, they blocked 41 shots in game seven. Read that again. Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said he’s never seen that many shots blocked in a hockey game. To put that unbelievable number in perspective, Montreal only attempted 38 shots during the entire game, and recorded only 16 shots on goal. The Rangers have two of the best shot-blocking defensive forwards, in Ryan Callahan and Chris Drury. Drury led all forwards in shot blocking in 2009-10, and Callahan wasn’t far behind. When looking at stats for all skaters, defenseman Dan Girardi was 6th in the NHL in blocked shots, and the next closest Rangers’ defenseman – Michal Rozsival – ranked 44th. Overall, the Rangers were the 11th-best shot-blocking team during the regular season. Blocking forty-one shots in a 60-minute NHL game is something we might never see again, but the Rangers had two of the top forwards and one of the top defenseman in that category during the regular season, and were one of the better shot-blocking teams.

On top of all that, Halak was a brick wall between the pipes. With Montreal trailing 3-1 in the series and on the verge of being eliminated, Halak turned in one of the best three-game stretches by a goalie I have ever seen. In games five, six, and seven, Halak was peppered with a total of 134 shots; he stopped 131.

Lundqvist has the ability to match Halak’s performance, and then some, but the story behind this series win was the defense of the Canadiens. The Rangers’ defense wouldn’t have measured up in this series and the offense, like it had all season, wouldn’t have been able to bail them out for three games – let alone the four they’d need to win. I think the Rangers would have lost in six. Lundqvist is too good to allow his team to get swept, but the Blueshirts wouldn’t have been able to do what Montreal did.

What do you guys think? What if the Rangers won that shootout against the Flyers in the last game of the regular season. Would they be playing Pittsburgh in the second round?