Conspiracy theories abound in the Stanley Cup playoffs, so why shouldn't there be a Chapter 2 of the one about the National Hockey League's central command dictating the style of refereeing that best suits the teams it wishes to promote?
Stop me if you've heard this before.
It's nothing overt, you understand.
Just a quiet word from the Czar, supposedly, and the on-ice officials snap to attention, tailoring their calls to ensure that the less desirable teams (read: Vancouver, Carolina) aren't permitted to slow down the young, marketable greyhounds (read: Chicago, Pittsburgh).
It is, of course, absurd on about a hundred levels, beginning with the idea that the NHL is that well organized, let alone that cravenly anti-fair play.
But in a very quiet way, after Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final, Carolina coach Paul Maurice suggested that if Monday's example becomes a trend, the Hurricanes are facing a complication they hadn't expected.
Namely, an entirely different, less permissive level of refereeing than they saw in the last round against the Boston Bruins.
Now, what would cause that shift, do you suppose?
"That was a completely different style of game than the last 14 that we've just played," Maurice said after the Penguins' 3-2 win. He referred to, among other things, the play where Canes' Erik Cole went hard to the net, toppled defenceman Hal Gill into goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, and was called for interference, negating a goal by Chad LaRose that would have tied it 2-2.
"The play where Erik goes to the net with Hal, he went to the net with (Boston's Zdeno) Chara, and that was a real big battle. It would be, you know, they exchanged 14 punches before they established net-front position, and tonight's game they were interference penalties . . . we took three interference penalties, and all three of those would have been just the start of the fight in the corner, not the end of it."
With two days between games, there has been plenty of opportunity to amplify.
"I didn't feel it was anywhere near the same physicality as the last two series," Maurice said Tuesday. "That last one (against Boston) especially, it was an agreed-upon mugging up and down the ice. The puck carrier was going to get hit as hard as they could, and the guys driving the net got blocked out early, and you had to fight, fight, fight."
In Game 1 against Pittsburgh, he suggested, the rule was: "You can hit, but you're not allowed to, as they say in NASCAR country, there's no rubbin' allowed. So we just have to make the adjustment, and that's the way it goes.
"Every series has its own life and its own temperature, and we have to learn to be careful with contact, and if you're going to drive the net, you're not allowed to bump, which is fine as long as it goes both ways."
Not being in the mood to be laughed off the planet, I decided not to call Gary Bettman for a comment on the conspiracy noises emanating largely from fans of the defeated teams. Anyway, the commissioner is up to his abdomen in alligators, these days, fighting to keep the Coyotes in Deadwood.
But on the surface, this much at least makes sense: if the referees in this series continue to call everything that has a sniff of clutch and grab, and make it harder to grind out the tough yards near the goal-line, logic tells you it should be the Penguins who flourish and the Canes who suffer.
Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma disagrees.
"If the game is called tightly, it favours the team that dictates the pace and where it's played," he said. "Whichever team is playing the offensive zone more is quick back in transition and attacking the net, a tightly called game will favour that team.
That's why you try to spend as much time in the offensive zone as possible. Because the calls tend to go your way when that's the case."
It may be significantly harder for the Hurricanes to be that team, if they have to play tonight's Game 2 in Pittsburgh without Cole and Tuomo Ruutu. Both were injured in Game 1 and didn't practise Tuesday or Wednesday.
But Maurice said they can't let the fear of a whistle deter their aggression.
"I don't think we can come off that," he said. "As all series go along, they become more physical. We have to play hard. We can't go in there to our locker-room and say that we have to come off anything that we do well because we have to be afraid of a call."
Somehow, the Hurricanes have gotten this deep into the playoffs despite being undesirable. They probably aren't about to surrender.