The sombre tones in the Montreal Canadiens' dressing room at Bell Centre on Saturday told you a great deal about the home team.

The single point earned in its 4-3 overtime loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs was little more than a consolation prize, a thanks-for-coming pat on the back for the game-show runner-up.

But 60-plus minutes of compelling hockey between the NHL's two oldest rivals had shown this: the Canadiens can keep pace with an opponent that just a few months ago was believed by many to be far out of their league. Had a puck glanced the other way off a goal post or a power-play opportunity been cashed, Montreal would have leap-frogged Toronto into second place in the Atlantic Division.

"We're not on our high horses but we're a confident team that thinks that if they play well enough, they can win any game," said Canadiens coach Claude Julien, whose team ended a seven-game homestand with 10 of 14 available points (4-1-2). "As we all know, winning can be contagious and so can losing. When you get satisfied with losses, it's not a good sign for your hockey club."

A Canadiens team that owner Geoff Molson had joked days before the start of training camp was viewed grimly by some as "the worst team on the planet" now seems entirely worthy of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Much hockey has yet to be played to get there, of course, but the gloomy cloud and dark sense of inevitable doom in this city has lifted.