WASHINGTON -- When the Chicago Blackhawks were ascending to the top of the NHL, they had a franchise to measure themselves against, to model their progress after.
That franchise was the Detroit Red Wings, which was the elite organization in the League for a long time. Whether it was on-ice success or a wealth of intangible measures, the Blackhawks wanted what the Red Wings had.
It wasn't really until Chicago beat Detroit in the second round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs and won a second title that the little brother-big brother dynamic disappeared from that rivalry.
After two championships and four trips to the Western Conference Final in six seasons, the Blackhawks, along with the Los Angeles Kings, have become a franchise others measure themselves against. The Blackhawks will meet one of those teams Thursday in the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Nationals Park.
"I think the Blackhawks are probably the gold standard right now in the National Hockey League with success on the ice and success off the ice, having a strong following," Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "To me they do everything right. The details, game presentation, facilities -- they think about the whole hockey experience for their fans, for their players, for their employees. That to me is the gold standard."
The Capitals reached a similar valley as the Blackhawks did before Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane arrived in Chicago. Washington has experienced success with its core of world-class players in Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, but not at the same level as Chicago.
Washington won the Presidents' Trophy in 2009-10, but Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens knocked the Capitals out of the playoffs, and about six weeks later Toews received the Stanley Cup from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. The Capitals struggled to maintain their status as title contender in the following seasons, while the Blackhawks have flourished.
"Just based on our personnel, I don't think our team is going to look like theirs does, but the consistency and kind of their attitude and their culture, that is something that we can hopefully get to that level someday," Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "They've got it established and they are proven winners. A lot of the same people are there, and they know what it takes.
"We're not there yet. We haven't accomplished anything. We want to have some of the attributes they have, like the culture, and I'm not in their room, but I'm sure they have a lot of accountability. Hopefully we can get there."
A number of factors have contributed to the Blackhawks' success. It starts with talent, and there are few teams in the NHL that can match the skill and talent and depth assembled in the Windy City.
Through a combination of a forward-thinking front office and a coaching staff open to new ideas and concepts, the Blackhawks have been lauded as one of the franchises most willing to use recent innovations in analytics to their advantage.
The Blackhawks are one of the best puck-possession teams, and coach Joel Quenneville helps maximize his players with how and when his deploys them. The success and the quality of the players have also helped foster that culture Niskanen was talking about.
"It is kind of passed down to you from the guys who have been here," Ben Smith, one of the younger Blackhawks, said. "You expect to win every night. You are expected to work hard and give your best. That is the challenge you're given. We're fortunate to have a lot of guys who have been around here for a while and maybe when that wasn't the case.
"We look at those guys and watch them to see what they bring to the table every day. They want to win and they're going to do whatever it takes. For a guy like me or [Andrew Shaw] or [Marcus Kruger], as guys coming in the last few years, it is a great atmosphere to learn in and continue to improve."
Words like "culture" and "accountability" and "leadership" are hard to define. Teams around the NHL are desperate to be strong in those areas. The Blackhawks and Kings are two of the teams that have "it," and the others want what they have.
"It speaks to the kind of people we have. We hold ourselves accountable more than anything else," Smith said. "We put the pressure to win ourselves individually more than leaning on the team in general. We're very fortunate to have good people here from the top down, and that feeds into what the team has accomplished and hopefully can in the future."
The Blackhawks have been among the best puck-possession and goal-prevention teams in the NHL all season. There was a point where they were not among the teams with the most wins or points in the standings.
This was a time when Chicago's culture was most evident. The Blackhawks did not panic and did not change their style of play or objectives. They knew they were playing well and the pucks would start going in the net.
That has happened, and now the Blackhawks are back near the top of the League standings. They are also a near-consensus favorite as the team to beat in the NHL as the calendar flips to 2015.
"[Quenneville] will give us the right recipe to be successful," Blackhawks forward Bryan Bickell said. "At the beginning of the year, we were playing the way he wanted us to, but things weren't quite going our way. That 'Circus Trip' about a month ago, we finally started to figure out and we had some chemistry with four lines and we've been rolling with it.
"We've got a great core that has grown together. If you look at what we've done the past couple years, the past several years, it is special. We have a chance to do the same thing. We're looking forward to it."
The Capitals have a new coach in Trotz and a couple of new veteran defensemen in Niskanen and Brooks Orpik. They also played well at the beginning of the season but lacked the results to show for it.
"I haven't won anything either. I just played in a place that kind of had that established. Maybe I can bring a little bit of that, but Brooks can for sure," Niskanen said. "He saw the lean times in Pittsburgh and won a championship and been everywhere in between. He knows what a winning culture looks like and what a not-so-good culture looks like. That's a big thing for him. We want to help on the ice for sure, but hopefully we can help.
"I think we can keep going, but we're heading in the right direction. We didn't want to completely change everything because this team has done a lot of good things in the past. There's been a little change in attitude and how to look at parts of the game can help us. "It's a lot of stuff without the puck. I think the attitude without the puck has been a big push, and that's where we are seeing some improvement."
The process has started to produce more victories, and Washington hopes to return to the playoffs after a one-year absence. More than that though, the Capitals want to be back in that small group of elite teams and have a chance to finally reach the peaks the Blackhawks have scaled.
"We've both come from the ashes to be pretty strong franchises this past decade, so there are some parallels, but the one thing we haven't done is we haven't won a banner," Trotz said. "We've won some of the smaller banners, but we haven't won the big one, and that's what I know this ownership and this organization wants to do. We're trying to build toward something like that if we can."