MONTREAL -- The Montreal Canadiens enter games Tuesday as the top team in the NHL, but doubts have swirled all season about their legitimacy in holding that spot.
Just about the only statistic that would suggest the Canadiens are an upper-echelon team is their 14-4-1 record, which is the most important one, but can sometimes be the most misleading as well.
The Canadiens, and the rest of the NHL, should have a better idea of where they stand by the end of this week, starting Tuesday when they put their six-game winning streak on the line at home against the Pittsburgh Penguins (7:30 p.m. ET) in a battle between the two Eastern Conference division leaders.
Montreal then welcomes the St. Louis Blues, the hottest team in the Western Conference, to Bell Centre on Thursday before visiting the rival Boston Bruins on Saturday and the New York Rangers on Sunday.
The Canadiens can erase or confirm the doubts surrounding their strong start to the season by the end of this brutal stretch.
"We're still early in the season. We're only in November. The one thing that I like is the progression, the way we approach games, the way that we pay attention to detail, but it's a battle every game," Montreal coach Michel Therrien said. "What we accomplished the last six games … you know, the only thing that it can give you when you're approaching a game like this is confidence. But it's another huge challenge tonight, and you know what, Thursday it's going to be the same thing, one of the best teams in the West with St. Louis, so we know that our work ethic needs to be at a top level to compete."
As opposed to the Canadiens, all of the Penguins numbers suggest they are right where they are supposed to be among the top teams in the League. They are second in the NHL with 3.62 goals per game, sixth with 2.19 goals allowed per game, second in 5-on-5 goal differential, first on the power play, fifth on the penalty kill, third in shots on goal per game, and the list goes on.
The Penguins arrive in Montreal having won nine of their past 10 games after a 3-2-1 start to the season, but they too are looking to measure themselves against their opponents Tuesday, seeking any type of mental edge possible for some time down the road. The Penguins have won seven of 10 games against the Canadiens since the start of the 2011-12 season, and they want to maintain that level of dominance.
It might only be mid-November, but the Stanley Cup Playoffs are always on the players' brains.
"You want to be able to know in the back of your mind that you're going to be able to beat a team in the playoffs," Penguins forward Chris Kunitz said. "A team that's on a roll like them, they have confidence, and that's how most teams are entering into the playoffs. It might be a little cliché to say it's a matchup game, but you want to have that confidence the next time you play them."
The mental mind games go even further than that, according to Pittsburgh defenseman Paul Martin.
"I think as a player, you have those competitive juices where you don't want to be the one who's not ready to play," he said. "If it's a top team, you want to let them know, 'Hey, so are we.' So you're going to be ready to play and sharp, no matter what day of the week it is. It gives you a good reason to play hockey on a Tuesday."
There are so many games over the grind of a full regular season, any type of edge a player can get against a particular opponent will be seized upon and used. For the Canadiens, they want to prove they have their place among the elite of the NHL. For Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, he'd like to see how his team is able to respond to the challenge of facing a top opponent on the road after a 5-0 loss at the New York Rangers last Tuesday, Pittsburgh's only loss in nearly four weeks.
"You look at a game last week, we played the Rangers for the first time and we didn't respond well, then we come back and play them and bounced back from that one," Crosby said, referring to Pittsburgh's 3-2 shootout win against the Rangers at home Sunday. "We don't want to have to learn that lesson twice."
The Canadiens and Penguins play a similar fast-paced, counter-attacking style, and it will be interesting to monitor which is able to dictate things and force the other to make the adjustment.
"It's our first time against Montreal this year, and certainly Montreal has played well," Penguins coach Mike Johnston said. "We've been impressed by their speed, their transition game. We've talked about it; we have to make sure defensively we're sound [Tuesday]. But at the same time that we keep our transition game going because we're a good counter-punch team, we're a good team on the attack, we can keep teams off balance. It's going to be an interesting game, the two teams play a very similar style."
The two teams are also similarly motivated to face each other, whether it's to seek legitimacy on one hand or maintain a pattern of dominance on the other.
It should make for compelling hockey.