"This is what we prepared for mentally at the start of the year," forward Brendan Gallagher said. "Our goal was to compete for a playoff spot. We kind of figured we'd be one of those teams that would have to battle right to the end, but we felt like it was there for us."
It still is, and that's something the Canadiens can use as a confidence-builder going into their final 11 games.
[RELATED: Islanders defeat Canadiens, keep pace in Metropolitan]
That they're not in a better position actually is the problem, because after playing better than most people outside their dressing room thought they could and would for the first two-thirds of the season, Montreal has picked a bad time to start playing down to its low preseason expectations.
The Canadiens proved critics wrong by going 31-18-7 in their first 56 games. They were third in the Atlantic Division with 69 points, seven clear of the Carolina Hurricanes, the non-playoff team with the best record, after a 4-3 overtime loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 9.
But Montreal is 6-9-0 in 15 games since then. The Canadiens (37-27-7) entered Friday tied in points with the Columbus Blue Jackets (81), but the Blue Jackets hold the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference because they have played one fewer game than the Canadiens. The Blue Jackets also have 38 regulation/overtime wins, three more than the Canadiens.
Columbus can take the points lead on Montreal when it plays Carolina at Nationwide Arena on Friday (7 p.m. ET; ESPN+, TVAS, FS-O, FS-CR, NHL.TV).
Video: Looking at how the Islanders defeated the Canadiens
"We've had bad starts, we've had bad periods, we've had bad shifts," forward Andrew Shaw said following a 2-1 loss to the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum on Thursday. "That hunger, that bite, it's not there. It's not where we need to be. We need to be a playoff team right now, and it looks like we're just going out there and playing."
There wasn't one particular area that the Canadiens were using to carry them earlier in the season. It mainly was the excellence of goalie Carey Price and an attention to detail that allowed them to be a winning team despite owning the 30th-ranked power play through Feb. 9 (13.5 percent).
It was enough to raise expectations around the League. The Canadiens became a team that should make the playoffs because they were in position to do so.
"Everyone in the outside world didn't believe in this team at the start of the year; we all did," forward Paul Byron said. "We all set a goal for [making the playoffs], and the way we played we gave ourselves an incredible chance to accomplish that."
The power play has gotten worse, going 2-for-36 in the past 15 games (5.5 percent). The Canadiens are struggling to score at even strength too, averaging 2.47 even-strength goals per game in their past 15 games, including 2.14 in seven games this month.
They scored 2.54 even-strength goals per game in their first 56 games.
"I just think we stopped playing like we had a chip on our shoulder," Shaw said. "We need to get back to that."
Byron said it starts with a keen attention to detail, which arguably was their best quality (other than Price's goaltending) earlier in the season.
That's missing now.
"There are lots of games where we play amazing hockey for 50 minutes, 45 minutes, and the 10 minutes, 15 minutes that we're not playing our best hockey really seem to hurt us a lot," Byron said. "At this point of the year we should all know our roles, know our jobs. We should all know what we have to do and when. Sometimes it's blocking that shot, getting that extra puck out, getting the big clear. These are all things that might not add up to much, but at the end of the game they can make a huge difference."
Their performance against the Islanders on Thursday was perhaps the most frustrating yet.
Despite being outplayed in the first period, Price held the Canadiens in the game and it was 1-1 going into the final three minutes of the third period. Then the avoidable mistake happened.
Defenseman Brett Kulak gambled and pinched deep into the offensive zone, leaving forward Max Domi above him with the puck and defenseman Jeff Petry as the lone player back. Domi fell, lost the puck to New York's Mathew Barzal, and Islanders captain Anders Lee scored on a 2-on-1 break with 2:57 remaining for a 2-1 win.
"It cost us a point, maybe even two," coach Claude Julien said.
Video: MTL@NYI: Barzal sets up Lee's go-ahead goal
That point would have been enough to lift the Canadiens above the Blue Jackets into the second wild card. Instead, they could be two points back with 11 games to play when face the Chicago Blackhawks at Bell Centre on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; CITY, SNE, TVAS, WGN, NHL.TV).
Maybe they would have been OK with that in October. It's what they expected, to be right there, in the mix, fighting to the end for a playoff spot.
But after raising expectations and proving their critics wrong, being on the outside looking in is not sitting well with the Canadiens now.
"We haven't had a game where every guy in the room has been going on the same night," Shaw said. "Knowing that's the type of team we need to be, a team playing hard, everyone, all lines and all 'D' and the goalie has to be playing their best every night. Lines are taking nights off. Players are taking nights off. We just don't have that bite.
"[We need] guts. We need to be hungry."