Capitals forward Martin Erat is slammed into the boards by Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

With the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins facing off as divisional opponents for the first time in more than 20 years and with each team’s star captain back at the top of their game, the stage was set Wednesday night to rekindle one of the NHL’s premiere and most heated matchups.

There wasn’t much tension in the 4-0 loss Pittsburgh hung on the Capitals at Verizon Center, though, as the home team struggled mightily in all facets. The Penguins scored two first-period goals, dominated at even strength and took a three-point lead over Washington atop the Metropolitan Division.

“We couldn’t get anything going,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “It’s very disappointing, obviously we knew they’re a great team and we knew they were going to come out hard and they did. We weren’t ready. After that, they controlled the game.”

Sidney Crosby, James Neal, Beau Bennett and Paul Martin all scored to extend Capitals netminder Braden Holtby’s lack of success against Pittsburgh. Holtby, who finished with 36 saves, is 0-4 against Pittsburgh all time with a .874 save percentage.

Goals were only one piece of evidence in the drubbing. The Capitals were outshot, 40-18 — 34-10 at even strength — marking the 19th time in 22 games they’ve given up 30 or more total shots.

While shot totals don’t reflect the quality of the chances that are fired on a goaltender, they are certainly indicative of which team is dictating the pace and controlling possession.

“If you face a lot of shots against, it means the other team obviously has a lot of possession. And obviously you’re not getting many chances to score,” said Holtby, who has faced 30-plus shots in all but two of the 16 games he’s played in full this season.

The Capitals had a chance to take an early lead themselves when Alex Ovechkin, who recorded only two shots on goal in the contest, rung the puck off the right post on an early power-play opportunity. Not long after the Penguins thwarted that penalty, Martin started the scoring with a seemingly harmless shot from the point, catching Holtby off guard following a faceoff win by Crosby with 6 minutes 38 seconds gone in the first.

Near the 12-minute mark, Evgeni Malkin found Bennett and sent the winger cutting into the Capitals zone between John Carlson and Karl Alzner. Bennett reached the right faceoff dot and fired a well-placed shot low, stick side that beat Holtby inside the far post for a 2-0 Pittsburgh lead.

“Those two goals in the first, for whatever reason, took too much momentum away from us,” Alzner said. “There was bits and pieces where we were playing pretty good, but details killed us today and those are things that we definitely need to look at.”

What was perhaps most unsettling about the Capitals’ showing in the opening frame on this particular occasion wasn’t the two-goal deficit but rather that they were outshot, 17-6, and recorded only two shots at even strength. They never corrected that trend.

In the second period, Washington showed signs of life and even threatened to establish momentum with physical play. As Martin Erat sat in the penalty box, Joel Ward and Jason Chimera zipped around the Penguins zone forcing turnovers and confronting their offensive stars on a stellar penalty killing shift. Chimera got in the face of Malkin and even socked the Pittsburgh center in the face.

The two teams played for a 4:02 span without a whistle, beginning in the midst of that penalty, trading chances as they raced up and down the ice with Ovechkin firing wide on a point-blank look at one end and Holtby smothering a shot from Crosby out in front at the other.

But the Capitals still weren’t generating many quality offensive opportunities at even strength and the only consistency in their passes, particularly in their own end, was that they were off the mark.

“I honestly thought we weren’t very clean coming out of our zone and in the neutral zone — and that was everybody,” Brooks Laich said. “The passes even to the final buzzer weren’t on the tape.”

When Washington was whistled for too many men on the ice late in the middle frame — a penalty Oates took the blame for — it gave the Penguins a prime opportunity to add an insurance goal that they didn’t squander. Crosby scored to make it 3-0 with 29 seconds remaining in the second as the result of a pretty tic-tac-toe play from Malkin on the half wall to Chris Kunitz in front, down to Neal on the goal line and then over to the star center low in the left circle.

In the third, Neal added one final reminder of the lopsided contest this had become, firing a blazing shot over Holtby’s left shoulder on the rush for a 4-0 lead.

“It’s hard to play when they didn’t make mistakes and we didn’t create opportunities in front of their net and opportunities in neutral zone to make play to create the moment,” Ovechkin said. “I think it was not our day at all, on power play, PK, five-on-five, that kind of games happen. Blame on us, but it is what it is.”