CHICAGO – A few years ago, the Chicago Blackhawks made no secret of their goal to become a franchise just like the Detroit Red Wings.
After winning the Stanley Cup twice in the past four seasons, they've accomplished that goal. Other teams are now striving to be young, fast and high-powered at both ends of the rink, just like them.
The San Jose Sharks are one of those teams. San Jose (26-10-8) is in town to face the Blackhawks on Sunday night at United Center (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and coach Todd McLellan isn't coy about who sets the NHL's standard bar for excellence.
"They have to be the bar," McLellan said of the Blackhawks. "You don't win two out of [four] and not be the bar. So, whether they like it or not, and I'm sure they do like it, they are the bar. That comes with success. That comes with expectations. Teams will try and emulate their plan, the way they've built, the way they carry themselves and the way they execute on the ice, because it's been proven to be successful."
The Sharks in particular are one of those teams that appear to be emulating what makes Chicago tick. They even have two members of the Blackhawks roster that won the Stanley Cup in 2010: goalie Antti Niemi and forward Adam Burish.
San Jose is currently without Burish, who is on injured reserve recovering from back surgery, but Niemi is their top goaltending option and might get the start Sunday night. The Sharks also jettisoned several players in the past year who weren't as fleet of foot, aiming to increase their team speed in all areas of the rink, just like the Blackhawks.
"When we're playing well, we should be a quick team," McLellan said. "When we're not playing well, that's the first thing to go. We look a little slower, we look lethargic and our passing isn't on. I think to win now, you have to be fast. [Chicago] proves that nightly.
"There are some other teams in the League that are top-notch teams and they play with a lot of tempo and a lot of speed and we're trying to get there. We have some players that have really bought into it and changed the way they play somewhat, but it's still a work in progress."
That's not too surprising, according to Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews.
"I think they've always been a high-energy team, a high-speed team like that," Toews said. "You watch them on the power play and I think it's very similar to their team game. They're always moving and they've always got their feet moving. Pretty much their whole team can skate well, they move the puck well and they try to generate a lot of chances off shifts where they're cycling and creating chance after chance. It's a team we have to be ready for."
One of those players the Sharks moved off their roster last year was veteran forward Michal Handzus, whom they traded to the Blackhawks at the trade deadline. The move seemed to re-energize the veteran forward, who wound up centering Chicago's second line during the 2013 Stanley Cup run. Handzus is still in the middle of that line now, with Patrick Kane on the right wing, but he does see a difference in his former team's style.
"They play faster," Handzus said. "They're way faster than when I was there. I think they started it last year and they're a good team. Their top two lines are some of the best in the NHL and they have a very good [defense corps] and good goaltending. They're a good team and they play faster than before."
Still, the Blackhawks overwhelmed the Sharks in their first meeting this season. Chicago won 5-1 on Nov. 17 at United Center to give San Jose its lone regulation loss in a 10-game stretch at that point. The Sharks enter this game having lost two of their last three games, including a 4-3 loss at the Colorado Avalanche Saturday afternoon. That doesn't mean the style they'll attempt to play against the Blackhawks will change.
"Everyone wants to have speed on their team," Handzus said. "It doesn't matter if its defensemen or forwards; it's speed, speed, speed. It's faster pace in games and if you're going to keep up you need to play the game that way."
Here are the projected lineups for the Sharks and Blackhawks Sunday night:
Joe Pavelski – Joe Thornton – Brent Burns
Patrick Marleau – Logan Couture – Matthew Nieto
James Sheppard – Bracken Kearns – Andrew Desjardins
Freddie Hamilton – John McCarthy – Mike Brown
Dan Boyle – Marc-Edouard Vlasic
Jason Demers – Scott Hannan
Brad Stuart – Justin Braun
Scratched: Matt Irwin, Eriah Hayes, Tyler Kennedy
Injured: Tommy Wingels (upper body), Raffi Torres (knee), Adam Burish (back surgery), Tomas Hertl (knee), Martin Havlat (lower body)
Patrick Sharp – Jonathan Toews – Marian Hossa
Brandon Saad – Michal Handzus – Patrick Kane
Bryan Bickell – Andrew Shaw – Kris Versteeg
Brandon Bollig – Marcus Kruger – Ben Smith
Duncan Keith – Brent Seabrook
Johnny Oduya – Niklas Hjalmarsson
Nick Leddy – Michal Rozsival
Scratched: Michael Kostka, Sheldon Brookbank
Injured: Nikolai Khabibulin (lower body)