MONTREAL - The Montreal Canadiens improved in a lot of statistical areas, just not the one that counts.
Niklas Backstrom stopped 30 shots as the Minnesota Wild sent the Canadiens to their fifth straight loss with a 3-1 victory Thursday.
Montreal has been plagued by undisciplined play and an inability to generate many shots on goal over the past few weeks, but both areas showed marked improvement in this game.
Yet it still didn't produce the victory the Canadiens so sorely needed.
"Moral victories suck in this business, I'm not going to sugar coat it," said Habs winger Mike Cammalleri. "It's a results-driven business, all our fans and all the people who care so much about this team want to see it win and so do we. When you talk about the process and working towards a goal, they're things that we can look at. But they don't really hold much weight as far as I'm concerned."
Mikko Koivu, Robbie Earl and Cal Clutterbuck scored for the Wild (17-14-3), who have won nine of their last 11 games.
"We were pretty good defensively and our goalie made the saves when he had to, and that was the key tonight," Koivu said. "Over the last two periods, he was great for us and that made the difference."
Andrei Kostitsyn scored his seventh over his last seven games for the Canadiens (15-18-3), who fell to three games below the .500 mark.
Habs coach Jacques Martin, however, found many positives to draw on in the loss, in particular the surprise return of defenceman Paul Mara after missing five games with an apparent shoulder injury.
"I'm encouraged with how we played, and also that Mara was able to play," Martin said. "We have other players who should be coming back soon, and that should help."
Mara took the spot of Roman Hamrlik, who appeared to hurt his right knee Wednesday night in New Jersey and said after the game he was "day to day." The Canadiens are also anticipating the return of all-star defenceman Andrei Markov, who visited with doctors Thursday seeking the green light to return for the first time since lacerating tendons in his left ankle in the season-opener Oct. 1.
Mara said were it not for Hamrlik's injury, he likely would have sat out the game.
"The weekend looked pretty dim as well," Mara said. "But the way things have been going, sometimes you have to battle through some injuries and some pain to help the team."
The game marked the return of former Canadien Guillaume Latendresse, who was traded to the Wild on Nov. 23 and has three goals and an assist since the trade. Aside from some mild booing when he touched the puck and mock chanting from the fans, Latendresse was pretty discreet other than a post-whistle shoving match with Josh Gorges in the second period.
"To be honest, I had some trouble controlling my emotions," Latendresse said. "I was very nervous in the first, it kind of dipped in the second, but between the second and the third it came right back. I'd say I was never able to get on top of the situation."
Carey Price stopped 18 shots for the Canadiens in his second start in 24 hours.
The Canadiens hit the 30-shot mark for the first time since Nov. 17, a span of 14 games, and also gave up only one power play for the first time since Oct. 6.
"We had better discipline tonight with only one penalty, so that's positive after the last couple of weeks," Martin said.
The Wild scored the first goal for only the 12th time in 35 games when Earl came down the right wing and beat Price through the legs on a sharp-angle shot for his third of the season at 2:41 of the first.
The Canadiens struck back just over 30 seconds later to tie it up. Scott Gomez stole the puck from Eric Belanger in the neutral zone, crossed the Wild blue-line and fed a streaking Kostitsyn, who swept in on Backstrom and roofed a backhand under the crossbar for his ninth of the season at 3:26.
The Wild entered the game on an 0-for-19 streak on the power play over the previous five games, but that ended on Minnesota's first opportunity of the night. With former Wild defenceman Marc-Andre Bergeron in the box, Koivu fought off a Gorges check and converted a great feed in front by Martin Havlat for his 10th of the year at 14:08 of the first to put Minnesota up 2-1.
The Canadiens carried much of the play in the second but failed to generate too many chances. The best came when Kostitsyn was set up for an open met by his brother Sergei about midway through the second, but fanned on his shot and missed the net.
Clutterbuck added the insurance goal at 11:47 of the third, grabbing a rebound of a shot off the end boards and beating Price upstairs for his sixth of the season.
Martin pulled Price in favour of a sixth attacker with over three minutes to play, and Minnesota's Kim Johnsson took a holding penalty with 1:20 left in regulation but Montreal was unable to capitalize.
Notes: Cammalleri played his 400th NHL game. ...Wild D Clayton Stoner of Port McNeill, B.C., made his NHL debut. ...The Canadiens had two power plays to one for the Wild, snapping a streak of eight games where Montreal gave up more power plays than its opponent. ...Price has put two game-worn masks up for auction to benefit two charities. The first is the mask he had to commemorate Remembrance Day, worn in Phoenix on Nov. 12, and the second is the mask he wore during the Canadiens centennial game on Dec. 4. The Remembrance Day mask's proceeds will go to Wounded Warriors, which helps Canadian soldiers wounded overseas. Proceeds from the centennial mask will go to the Montreal Canadiens Children's Foundation. The bidding at www.auction.nhl.com opened Thursday and closes Dec. 31a