Updated: October 13, 2011, 5:42 PM ET

News: Crosby cleared for contact

Has Caps-Pens rivalry lost some luster?

Burnside By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com
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Is a rivalry defined only by the players that take part?

Is a rivalry, for instance, defined simply by two players?

When Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Washington's Alex Ovechkin have crossed paths, whether it's been in the regular season, the Stanley Cup playoffs or the Olympics, the lights seem to shine that much brighter.

The two franchise players entered the league at the same time following the lockout. They have both received enough individual awards and accolades to decorate a mighty man cave, and yet the two have also confronted different challenges in recent months.

Crosby was cleared for contact Thursday morning, but his actual return to action is still unknown (he's been out of action since Jan. 5 with a concussion). He will miss this season's first of four meetings between the Capitals and Penguins on Thursday after being sidelined for the final two games between the teams last season, both shutout wins by Washington.

The Penguins have been unable to match their stirring Stanley Cup run in 2009, losing in the second round to upstart Montreal in 2010 and blowing a 3-1 series lead before being ousted by Tampa Bay in the first round this past spring without Crosby.

As for Ovechkin, he and the rest of his talented teammates are still trying to figure out the whole playoff puzzle. After dropping a seven-game set to Pittsburgh in the second round of the 2009 playoffs (one of the most compelling playoff matchups in recent history), Washington was bounced in the first round by eighth-seed Montreal in 2010. The Caps were then swept by Tampa Bay in the second round this past spring after finishing with the best record in the Eastern Conference for the second straight season.

Although the Caps are 2-0-0 to start this season, Ovechkin has just one assist after a disappointing 2010-11 campaign.

Still, the regular season is just a week old and this game represents one of those early "hmm" contests. And despite Crosby's absence, the animosity that exists between these two teams is visceral.

Even newcomers like Troy Brouwer of Washington and Steve Sullivan of the Penguins understand that what goes on between these two teams is greater than the sum of two players.

"When you have the two marquee names in the game, that's obviously going to cultivate an instant rivalry," Sullivan told ESPN.com this week.

Although he has been in the Western Conference for almost his entire career, Sullivan said it hasn't taken long to understand that these games are circled on the Pens' calendar.

"As soon as you become a part of an organization, you buy into the rivalry. It becomes a part of you," he said. "You can sense the passion you have toward another organization."

Brouwer, who signed a two-year deal as a free agent with the Caps after winning a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010, has little experience with either team, but understands what he's stepping into Thursday night.

"From what I can tell, these two teams aren't too fond of each other," Brouwer told ESPN.com. "It's exciting. Obviously I'm not entirely invested in it quite yet."

"Yet" being the operative word there. We're guessing the big winger will be invested at about 7:15 p.m. Thursday night.

Sullivan and Brouwer are expected to play important roles for these two Eastern Conference powerhouses, who have started the season a combined 5-0-1.

With Crosby out of action and Evgeni Malkin a game-time decision (he took the morning skate Thursday), Sullivan has helped the Penguins' power play get off to a torrid start with five goals in their first 20 attempts. That's good news for a team whose man-advantage efforts in the playoffs cost them against Tampa Bay.

Brouwer has one goal and is expected to play top-six minutes with either with Nicklas Backstrom or Ovechkin and provide some gritty play around opposing nets. Perhaps more important, Brouwer will bring the knowledge of what it takes for a team to get over the postseason hump.

Brouwer noted that even though the Hawks had a talented core, the addition of players like John Madden and Andrew Ladd were important pieces to their puzzle in 2010.

"Sometimes, you just need a couple of guys to come in and reinforce those points," he said.

Brouwer admitted he wasn't sure what to expect from Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau after watching "24/7," but was pleasantly surprised.

"He's a nicer guy than how he's been portrayed as being in some of the articles or on '24/7,'" Brouwer said. "He just expected me to be the player that I've been in recent years and do what's made me successful."

Boudreau is also expecting, no doubt, that Brouwer quickly get invested in a certain rivalry that begins another chapter Thursday night.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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