There's a zig-zagging border between confidence and hubris; every so often life sends someone along to point out it's within sight.
The Montreal Canadiens are still atop the NHL standings, and if it wasn't clear that they arrived there despite being a good but not elite team, a 4-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins may go some distance to settling the question.
Every hockey season contains its lot of humbling twists and teachable moments, which is pretty much how Montreal's coach is choosing to frame it.
"A nice dose of humility," Michel Therrien said post-game. "We realize we still have an enormous amount of work to do . . . if we want to compare ourselves with big teams like that."
In a week that will see them match wits with a Western Conference heavyweight on Thursday (the St. Louis Blues) and a familiar rival (in Boston on Saturday), the Habs will need to cram for their next exam.
"There's two great tests this week, obviously we failed the first one but there's another one coming up in two days, and we're looking to turn it around and open up some ice," said winger Max Pacioretty, who called the effort "my worst one in a while."
It might be worth noting the big winger, along with his fellow alternate captains, has been around to face the music after losses this season – admittance to the leadership group means taking the good with the bad.
The prevailing sentiment in Montreal's expansive new dressing room was one of frustration-tinged disappointment.
A few feet away from Paciorety, fellow alternate captain P.K. Subban struck a matter-of-fact tone as he philosophized on the outcome.
"Maybe it's a lesson for us to learn, we need to play the system against good teams like this. I can tell you something, the Pittsburgh Penguins, or St. Louis next game or the L.A. Kings, these types of teams in the league, they're going to come after you for 60 minutes," he said, "you have to be prepared for that, they're going to wait for you to make mistakes, and they're going to capitalize on it, that's what good teams do. We've done it to a lot of teams this year, it's going to happen to us too, but you have to learn from it."
So what specifically must this club learn, Mr. Subban?
Claiming "I'm no system expert," he pointed to repeated turnovers, a lack of competitive intensity and the hunger to get to pucks, highlighting a sequence in the second period where tired players were victimized by the long change.
"Those types of mistakes will crush you. Whether you make it in the first period, or the third period, good teams will bury you on that. And those are the things we have to learn," he said. "I can tell you, I watched their team from the bench and when they get to that blue line, the puck is going behind. I can't tell you how many times I turned to go back to get pucks, that's what good teams do."
So the Habs know how they have to play. The tricky part is pulling it off against top teams.
The next opportunity to be judged looms on Thursday, unsurprisingly the Habs are aware of this.
"There's no reason to be too negative to ourselves, we had some good stretches, but now we have to bounce back, we've got to show we're a good team and this one was just one that caught us flat-footed," centre Tomas Plekanec of the night that brought a six-game winning streak to a juddering halt.
Much went wrong in this game, not all of it related to the underlying problems that have been evident since the beginning of the season.
True, the power-play sucked again, going 0-for-3.
But the blue line mostly limited the damage from the Pens' top players and kept the puck moving in the right direction. The Habs didn't shoot themselves in the foot with useless penalties (the Pens did score on their only power-play, but it was the fourth goal). The forwards were able to unlock the Pittsburgh forecheck early, and they even managed a lively start.
On the game's first shift Alex Galchenyuk had a partial breakaway where he inexplicably decided to dish a blind spin-o-rama pass to the slot; Jiri Sekac, the best Hab on the night by a long chalk, probably should have opened the scoring inside the first five minutes with a power move off the right wing; Pacioretty had the puck on his stick in the slot a few minutes later but saw his shot carom high off a Pittsburgh stick.
The Habs have only lost five games in regulation this season. Four of them have been by margins of four or more, the other was a 3-0 shutout to Edmonton which, paradoxically, was one of Montreal's better all-around efforts of the early season.
The result is the result, but if 4-0 can nevertheless feel like a close-ish game, this was it.
Pittsburgh's first three goals were the result of egregious mistakes – a bad pass from defenceman Nathan Beaulieu, and simple coverage errors from Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau and Brendan Gallagher – but the Habs piled up a series of early scoring chances and even won the possession battle against a team that's fairly handy with the puck.
By then, the Pens were content to let the Habs fire away at Marc-Andre Fleury, who logged his 299th career win in a building where he has been largely terrible in his career.
"Montreal hasn't been my best city. It's nice to get it, for sure," he said.
Asked if he could remember a better run of games – the Pens are on an 11-1 string, Fleury has seven of his last nine starts, posting four shutouts – Fleury laughed.
"Maybe pee-wee? I don't know, I don't think I've had so many [shutouts] so early in the season. It's not all about me, our team has been playing really solid defensively, not giving them too much," he said.