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.

When Pittsburgh and Washington meet for the first time this season Thursday night, the Penguins still won't have Crosby, who is one step closer to returning after being cleared for contact Thursday, but they are hopeful to have Malkin back after a two-game absence.

Of course, the task will always be tough against Alex Ovechkin and the visiting Capitals, who have won three straight in the series — including two shutouts with the Penguins' star duo sidelined.

Crosby cleared for contact

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has taken another step forward in his recovery from a concussion. 

Doctors cleared him for contact prior to Thursday's morning skate at Consol Energy Center.

"It's a big step but we'll see how things go," said Crosby. "I've got to get hit in practice." 

No timetable was provided for his return to game action. 

The first sign that his status had changed came when he stepped on the ice Thursday morning wearing the same black helmet as his teammates. He had previously been using a different coloured helmet — indicating he couldn't be hit.

A hit to Crosby's head in the teams' New Year's Day showdown from then-Washington centre Dave Steckel was the first in successive games that contributed to a concussion, which has kept Pittsburgh's captain out since Jan. 5.

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.

Acute rivalry

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."

Crosby is waiting to be cleared for contact, while Malkin made his way back for the start of the season. 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 a lower-body injury. That kept him out of a 2-1 shootout loss in Edmonton a night later and Tuesday's home opener against Florida.

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."

Bylsma said Tuesday he didn't believe Malkin's injury — which is reportedly unrelated to his ACL tear — was serious, but it's unclear if he'll be on the ice Thursday.

Malkin’s Russian countryman Ovechkin will be as Washington hits the road for the first time, but the two-time Hart Trophy winner hasn't been the Capitals' biggest offensive threat through two games.

‘Put the work boots on’

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 per cent (seven of 23) of their man-advantage chances against the Pens during the last eight meetings while holding Pittsburgh to 9.1 per cent (three 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.