With three of the game's brightest stars, a captivating seven-game playoff series, a date in the Winter Classic and even its own HBO reality series, the rivalry between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins has become one of the NHL's best.
Without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, it also became rather one-sided.
Pittsburgh still won't have Crosby but is hopeful to have Malkin back after a two-game absence Thursday night against Alex Ovechkin
and the visiting Capitals, who have won three straight in the series - including two shutouts with the Penguins' stars sidelined.
A hit to Crosby's head in the teams' New Year's Day showdown from then-Washington center Dave Steckel was the first in successive games that contributed to a concussion, which has kept Pittsburgh's captain out since Jan. 5.
Crosby was cleared for full contact for the first time Thursday, though the timetable for his return to game action remains unclear.
"It's a good step in the right direction," Crosby told the Penguins' official website. "It's a big step, but with each step I have to see how things go."
Malkin, who scored his team's lone goal in the 3-1 loss at Heinz Field, tore his ACL on Feb. 4, two days before the Penguins (3-0-1) and Capitals (2-0-0) met again in the nation's capital.
With both former Art Ross Trophy winners sidelined, Washington posted a pair of victories in February by a combined 4-0, turning a rivalry that had already been swinging its way into one that was even more one-sided. Since losing to Pittsburgh in seven games in the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinals, the Capitals are 7-0-1 against the Penguins.
With that record in mind, Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma expects his team to be ready Thursday.
"There are times when you don't have to get up for a game," he said. "When you have the Capitals come into your building ... you're acutely aware of the situation and the rivalry that's there.
"I think it's a great test."
The Penguins would certainly prefer if Malkin, who's battling some lingering soreness in his surgically repaired knee, was on the ice for it. He had an assist in an opening-night victory at Vancouver, and scored in a 5-3 win at Calgary on Saturday before leaving with an injury.
That kept Malkin out of a 2-1 shootout loss in Edmonton a night later and Tuesday's home opener against Florida. He participated in Thursday's morning skate, but was deemed a game-time decision to face the Capitals.
Against the Panthers, Pittsburgh didn't seem to miss him. The third line of Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke and Joe Vitale combined for two goals and three assists in the Penguins' 4-2 victory.
"I think we got a little confidence from last year knowing we can win without (Crosby and Malkin)," goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury told the NHL's official website. "... But we've got to find ways to hold together, contribute and get some wins."
The Capitals haven't had trouble scoring in winning their first two games at home, but Ovechkin hasn't been the team's biggest offensive threat.
That title belongs to Jason Chimera
. The third-line winger scored once in Saturday's 4-3 overtime win against Carolina, then found the back of the net twice in the third period Monday as Washington avenged its playoff loss to Tampa Bay with a 6-5 shootout victory.
"We know we've got all the skill in the world," said Chimera, who's never scored a goal in 14 games against Pittsburgh. "Everyone knows that. You've got to put the work boots on some nights. That's what counts."
Chimera did have a pair of assists last season against the Penguins - one point more than Ovechkin - but perhaps Pittsburgh should be more concerned about Mike Knuble
. The oldest player on the Caps' roster has a point in 12 straight regular-season games versus the Penguins, compiling 11 goals and four assists.
Seven of those points came on the power play, and Washington has gained an edge against Pittsburgh thanks largely to special teams.
The Caps have converted 30.4 percent (7 of 23) of their man-advantage chances against the Pens during the last eight meetings while holding Pittsburgh to 9.1 percent (3 for 33).
The Penguins, who led the league in penalty kill percentage (86.1) last season, have yet to allow a power-play goal in 16 chances this season.