PITTSBURGH -- The Minnesota Wild has been one of the hottest teams in the NHL since mid-December, the second-hottest team on the road since early December.
Entering play Friday, the Wild had put itself within one point of eighth place and a stunning three points from fourth in the tightly strung Western Conference.
"Yet I was reading one of the Boston papers before (Thursday's) game, they looked at our roster and said something to the effect of, 'Their roster's not worth writing about,"' coach Todd Richards said before the Wild's bowling outing Friday, one day before the Wild closes the first half against the powerhouse, yet Sidney Crosby-less Pittsburgh Penguins.
"We don't get the respect we feel we deserve at times. But there's only one way you get the respect. It's not given. You have to earn it. Without a question, we have to earn our stripes."
As defenseman Greg Zanon said after Thursday's impressive victory at Northeast Division-leading Boston, the Wild's got a long way to go before it proves itself.
But it's getting there, too. Something's going on with the Wild. You can just sense it's becoming a real team.
"We're starting to figure out what we're about," Zanon said.
Sixty-minute, all-around performances like Thursday's reinforce that notion.
"The thing we're getting good at is knowing what we need from everybody to be able to be successful," said Cal Clutterbuck, who along with Brent Burns leads the Wild with 12 goals. "We have the guys that are just willing to do it right now. That's the bottom line.
"It's just a recognition of how we need to play and coming together as a group."
Six weeks ago, it looked like it was going to be a long, miserable season in Minnesota. Suddenly, the Wild's put itself right in the thick of things, largely because of outstanding road play.
Overall, the Wild is 7-2-1 in the past 10. But since Dec. 4 on the road, the Wild is 6-1-2. Remember, the Wild won 13 road games last year.
Why the turnaround? The team is executing Todd Richards' system.
In October and November, the Wild spent the majority of games pinned in its own end, barely generating any kind of forecheck. In the past month, that's changed dramatically.
The Wild gets out of its end well, gets pucks behind opposing defenses, generates suffocating forechecks and crashes the net. Richards' philosophy was stated succinctly when he arrived in Minnesota: Play on your toes, not your heels; be proactive, not reactive; dictate play.
The best recent examples of the Wild playing this way came in the first period in New Jersey and the first half of the second period in Boston. Against the Bruins, the Wild swarmed the puck, creating turnover after turnover.
"We're finding out that the system is working when we're doing it right," Zanon said. "It's more trust in each other within the system. The defensemen know now that we can go down and pinch the wall (in the offensive zone) because the third (forward) will be there, and sure enough, you turn around and he's right there.
"There's just confidence in everybody. Sometimes when the game feels easy, it's when you're working your hardest. That's because everybody's always in the right spots in the right situations."
Everybody's buying in. For example, Martin Havlat is arguably the Wild's most skilled offensive player. But his strong move on a power-play goal wasn't the most impressive thing about his game in Boston.
It was his unmistakable effort all over the ice, in all situations, especially defensively.
"Everyone's working for each other," Kyle Brodziak said. "Just look at how we support each other on cycles. Even when we're losing the puck -- before, the play died. Not anymore."
Still, the one thing Richards has learned in the West: Things change fast.
"We have a lot of games left to play," Richards said. "It's a challenge every single night."
But, Richards added, "Right now, you walk through that room, and it's starting to become a pretty confident group, individually and as a team."