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Montreal Canadiens head coach Claude Julien gives instructions during the a practice in Brossard, Que., on Jan. 4, 2021.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

The hockey season ended suddenly and badly last year for Claude Julien. The Montreal Canadiens head coach had chest pains after a game during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

At first, the 60-year-old thought he had indigestion. When it didn’t go away on the night of Aug. 12, 2020, he told a team trainer. Soon, Julien was in the back of an ambulance on the way to a hospital in Toronto.

The next day, Julien had a stent installed in a coronary artery. After such a heart procedure, a man who has spent nearly two decades directing troops around the NHL was unsure if he would be able to do it again. This week, in the runup to Montreal’s first game at home in nearly 11 months, he reflected on that brush with mortality.

“It has always meant a lot for me to be doing this,” Julien said during a virtual call with journalists. “I don’t think there has ever been a time that I have taken this job for granted. I feel extremely fortunate to have been doing it for this long.

“Having gone through what I went through last summer, it could have gone either way. It could have been the last time I was behind the bench. Yet here I am today, through a pandemic and everything else. I feel fortunate to continue to do the job I love.”

As an NHL defenceman, Julien’s career lasted all of 14 games. As a head coach, he is nearing his 1,400th.

This is his fifth season in his second stint with the Canadiens, and his team is one of the league’s biggest surprises early on. Montreal heads into the weekend with a 5-0-2 record and is behind only the Toronto Maple Leafs in the all-Canadian North Division.

In a preseason poll of 20 Sportsnet Insiders, only one predicted that the Canadiens would win the division. By comparison, 11 picked Toronto, six chose Calgary and two selected Edmonton.

The Maple Leafs have done their part by winning seven of nine so far. The Oilers are 3-6. The Flames hope to avert a fourth successive loss when they play at Montreal on Saturday night.

The Canadiens began the season by playing six games on the road. They earned 10 of a possible 12 points before running roughshod over Calgary in Thursday’s home opener at the Bell Centre. Four different players had goals in the 4-2 Montreal victory. The Flames scored both in the last 78 seconds when the outcome was certain.

While other teams made splashes in the off-season by trading for or signing marquee names such as Tyson Barrie, Taylor Hall, Braden Holtby, Jacob Markstrom and Alex Pietrangelo, the Canadiens shuffled the deck with less glamourous accoutrements.

They brought in left winger Tyler Toffoli from the Los Angeles Kings as a free agent. They traded Maxi Domi to Columbus for right winger Josh Anderson and a third-round draft pick. They traded draft picks to St. Louis for backup goalie Jake Allen. They picked up defenceman Joel Edmundson from Carolina for a fifth-round choice.

The mixture of newcomers with old hands such as Carey Price, Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar has been successful.

“It has been fun since Day 1,” Julien said. “I have really appreciated the attitude and approach these guys have had since the first day they came into camp. Guys that have been here a long time were extremely excited and happy to be back. New guys seem to love their teammates, the environment and everything else.

“It has been good, and kind of transpired into our games.”

Toffoli has scored six times. Anderson has four goals. Gallagher has three and two assists. Petry is off to the best start of his career with two goals and six helpers. Allen won both starts in relief of Price.

Last season, Montreal had six short-handed goals in 71 regular-season games. The Canadiens have five already, including one by Toffoli on Thursday night.

“I was never really too worried about coming to Montreal,” Toffoli said this week. “I have heard nothing but great things about it here. I talked to guys that played here and they said their teammates were great. Both have been nothing but true so far.”

Anderson, who suffered a shoulder injury last season that limited him to one goal and four points in 26 games, was dazzled by his first visit to the home dressing room at the Bell Centre this week.

“It kind of takes your breath away,” he said. He scored a career-high 27 goals for Columbus in 2018-19 and hopes to find that touch. “I was kind of speechless for the first 10 minutes, seeing all the great players and the long history here.”

Gallagher is happy about the team’s fast start. He has seen it before, and because of that remains cautious.

“It’s encouraging, but there is no reason to celebrate,” Gallagher said. The 28-year-old right wing is in his ninth season in Montreal. In the past five years, they have missed the playoffs three times and lost in the first round twice. “I think we were 9-1 to start one year and 10-0 to start another. Things can easily go the other way.

“Other teams are going to improve and if we aren’t doing the same thing we will fall back to the pack pretty quickly.”

Julien is feeling grateful to be back behind the bench after the health scare he experienced last year.

“With everything that has been going on, with so many people who have lost their jobs or loved ones, we consider ourselves lucky to be doing what we are doing,” he said. “We embrace the opportunity to maybe help with the mental health of a lot of people. They are locked in their homes without much to do, and hockey games excite them and give them joy.

“We have an opportunity to do that, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed on our part.”