MONTREAL -- Max Pacioretty said he didn't hear the chatter, but he knew it was out there.
He knew because his Montreal Canadiens were feeling it.
The Canadiens entered this week atop the NHL standings with a rough stretch of four games staring them directly in the face: The Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues at home, the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers in a back-to-back on the road.
It was as stiff a test as they had faced and an opportunity to silence critics saying their hot start was not sustainable, that they didn't belong among the elite teams of the NHL.
In the first leg of that test, the Canadiens did not silence their critics. They empowered them.
Montreal was thoroughly dominated by the Penguins, losing 4-0 Tuesday and failing to seize the opportunity presented to them.
The Canadiens had lost 7-1 to the Tampa Bay Lightning and 5-0 to the Chicago Blackhawks, then this. The whispers that Montreal was unable to compete with some of the top teams in the NHL began to take hold.
"I didn't hear about that," Pacioretty said, "but you know what's going to be said."
The second leg of the Canadiens' defining week came Thursday, and they came out with their best collective effort of the season in a 4-1 victory against the Blues. Montreal fell behind 1-0 in the first period before scoring the next four goals, with two coming from Pacioretty on breakaways, a situation that has given him trouble all season.
It stopped those whispers pretty quickly.
"We knew before that if we lost to Pittsburgh and St. Louis that would be said, and we knew if we were able to take four points from them we'd get a little bit of respect around the League," Pacioretty said. "It seems like people don't really want to like our team. You know: 'The Habs, they've won so many Cups.' It seems like talking to players on other teams, they think maybe players get a little glorified here being under the microscope. So it's nice to beat a team that's so good and has so much respect around the League."
The respect card is one that was played by Pacioretty and his teammates in the Eastern Conference Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season against the rival Boston Bruins. They felt the Bruins didn't have any respect for them, and the Canadiens were motivated to earn it.
The Canadiens were all too happy to scream loud and proud that Boston had no choice but to respect them after they defeated the Bruins in Game 7 at TD Garden.
"That's a little bit different," Pacioretty conceded.
The fact remains the Canadiens' lofty perch in the standings was being questioned based on the statistical anomalies, and they are determined to prove it is legitimate. The poor goal differential, the horrendous power play, the mediocre possession numbers, all of it suggested Montreal was destined for a market correction.
"Maybe we were a little extra motivated," Canadiens forward PA Parenteau said. "To me, this is the best team in the West, the most balanced team, and I think we played a strong 60 minutes tonight."
A popular explanation for the Canadiens' success was that it was overly reliant on excellent goaltending, something Carey Price provided again against the Blues with 31 saves, none bigger than the two he made against Joni Lehtera and Jaden Schwartz off odd-man rushes in a span of 19 seconds early in the third period to maintain a 2-1 Canadiens lead. Pacioretty scored his second goal of the game shortly afterward.
Criticizing the Canadiens based on Price's play is somewhat odd because not only is he a member of the team, but he's its biggest star. Every team relies on its biggest star to deliver wins, so why should Price be any different?
But the doubts weren't only coming from the outside.
Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said following the loss to the Penguins that Montreal had a lot of work to do before it could reach Pittsburgh's level. It was a not-so-veiled challenge setting up the game against the Blues.
It got a response.
"He definitely challenged us, and it's a good sign that we were able to rise to that occasion," Pacioretty said. "Everyone has these personal contributions, but I've never been on a team that's so happy for everybody's individual success. If someone's in the doghouse or someone's had a bad shift with a couple of turnovers, everyone's trying to pump them up or get them going. To see them contribute and break out of something like that is an unbelievable feeling. You feel the positive vibes down the bench and in the room."
The Canadiens are halfway through this challenging week and a quarter of the way through the season, still atop the NHL standings as they were when they started it. The game Saturday at the Bruins is another portion of this test, and it's somewhat appropriate that's the case.
The Canadiens wanted to earn the respect of the Bruins in last season's playoffs, and now a win against the Bruins could earn them the respect of the League.
"Look at everyone in this room, they all have something to prove," Pacioretty said. "That's why management has them here, and that's why our team's so successful.
"Everyone has something to prove, and it makes our team pretty special."