WASHINGTON----Their games feature two players widely regarded as the finest in the sport.
One team is a champion, the other aspires to be.
Doesn't seem tough to understand why people pay attention any time the Penguins and Washington share a slab of ice, as they will at 7:08 tonight at the Verizon Center.
But Capitals left winger Alex Ovechkin, who shares top billing with Penguins center Sidney Crosby whenever these clubs collide, suggested that perhaps the emphasis placed on games between the Penguins and Washington exceeds their actual importance.
• Game: Penguins at Washington Capitals, 7:08 p.m. today, Verizon Center.
• TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9).
• Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Jose Theodore for Capitals.
• Penguins: Have not lost consecutive games in regulation since dropping five in row Dec. 27-Jan. 3. ... Sidney Crosby has one goal in past eight games. ... Penalty-killers have snuffed 24 consecutive short-handed situations.
• Capitals: Own NHL's best home record, 26-4-4. ... C Brooks Laich has six-game scoring streak. ... Have outscored opponents, 100-63, during third period.
• Hidden stat: Capitals are 6-0-1 when opponents get 40 or more shots.
"It's just a regular game," he said Tuesday. "But, for the media and for fans, it's going to be a pretty big game. Like always."
Funny how that works. Sprinkle a couple of rosters with enough stars to populate a decent-sized galaxy, add some epic battles of talent and will, and people just cannot bring themselves to ignore it.
Actually, fans have had a hard time taking their eyes off the Capitals at any point this season.
They have the NHL's best record (48-14-10), lead the league in goals scored (279), own a power play without equal (25.9 percent) and have no fewer than seven 20-goal scorers on the payroll.
The Capitals formally will claim the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference any minute now, and nothing shy of a full-blown implosion can prevent them from earning the Presidents' Trophy as the league's finest team during the regular season.
All very impressive. But, as Washington coach Bruce Boudreau was quick to point out, receiving the Presidents' Trophy does not mean much if the Stanley Cup goes home with someone else.
"I think it's a nice deal, but it's not the biggest deal," Boudreau said. "If we were to do that and lose in the first round of the playoffs, I wouldn't call it a successful year."
In 2009, the Capitals' season ended abruptly in the second round, when the Penguins beat them in Game 7 at the Verizon Center. The most intense and enduring rivalries are forged in the playoffs, and going the distance in a best-of-seven was sure to ratchet up the passion in this one, regardless of who won.
And not just for the respective fan bases. Perhaps the Penguins and Capitals really do not circle games against each other when the schedule is released, but you can be certain they know when one is coming.
Indeed, while Capitals goalie Jose Theodore offered Tuesday that "I think [the media] make a bigger deal than it is" anytime the Penguins and Washington meet, he was quick to add that, "it's always special to play against the Stanley Cup champions, and they're the ones who beat us last year."
Defenseman John Erskine suggested that the significance of the game tonight is enhanced by what might follow it a month or two.
"If we want to win the Cup, we have to go through Pittsburgh, probably," he said. "So, it will be a good test."
At the same time, the Capitals caution against putting undue emphasis on anything that happens during a regular-season series. Taking seven of a possible eight points from the Penguins in 2008-09 didn't help Washington get the victory it needed most in May.
"Last year, we beat them in the [regular] season every time, and, when playoff time came, we lost against them," winger Tomas Fleischmann said. "So you never know."
The Capitals have been built primarily through the draft, but Washington general manager George McPhee has brought in veterans such as Mike Knuble, Jason Chimera, Scott Walker and Joe Corvo since last summer to add leadership and stability to a group with abundant skill.
"We have a good mix of everything," center Nicklas Backstrom said. "That's great for the playoffs."
And having their young stars -- Overchkin, Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green -- log another 12 months in the league can only work in Washington's favor this spring, as well.
"We're more experienced," Boudreau said. "Another year older, where you're not too old. It's not like a bunch of 40-year-olds now are 41."
The snapshot inside the Capitals' locker room Tuesday was of a team that seems confident and committed -- a lot like the Penguins were by the start of their playoff run last spring -- but aware that, for all it has achieved so far, much remains undone.
"It's been a good year," said Capitals winger Matt Bradley, a former Penguin. "But there's still a long way to go."