Saturday, April 14, 2012 Updated: April 16, 10:04 PM ET
Why has the line been crossed?
By Pierre LeBrun ESPN.com
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Dan Boyle was in midsentence, glancing up at the TV.
"It seems like every shift guys are trying to start stuff," the veteran Sharks blueliner said Sunday just as another fight broke out in Philadelphia.
"Just as you said that, look," teammate Marc-Edouard Vlasic pointed to the Penguins-Flyers game on the tube in the dressing room.
A weekend full of fisticuffs and cheap shots around the NHL playoffs has people around the sport buzzing.
Just what exactly is in those water bottles?
"It's playoffs, it's a scrappy time of year, especially in the first round," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said Sunday.
Well, yes, the playoffs are always intense and emotional. But it just seems like this year a line has been crossed in some cases. Or are we just getting more soft as a society that we don't stomach the same things that have always been part of the game?
Sunday afternoon's fight-filled circus in Philadelphia just added to a weekend full of chaos, which included suspendable acts in New York on Saturday, as well a little craziness in St. Louis on the same night.
Through conversations we had with several team executives and coaches around the league Sunday, we came up with a list of possible factors:
• The league's decision not to suspend Shea Weber for his transgressions on Henrik Zetterberg on the first night of the playoffs "allowed it to be open season," as one team executive said. "It started there."
• One by one, veteran NHL refs have retired from the league over the past few years, leaving many inexperienced on-ice officials in charge of playoff games, depending on the night. "Some of them don't know how to control a game," said one Eastern Conference coach.
• The players more than ever have very little respect for each other.
• One veteran player told ESPN.com on Sunday that he believes the weeding out of traditional tough guys has also open the door for "rats" to roam free on the ice and wreak havoc without any fear. He pointed, as an example, at Blues winger Vladimir Sobotka's punch that broke Dominic Moore's nose Saturday night. He said Sobotka would never have had the guts to do that "10 years ago," when NHL rinks were better patrolled.
• The incredible parity in the league has created a frenetic atmosphere in which teams are trying for any possible edge they can find in such closely contested series, and that includes trying to intimidate the other team.
All of the above? Hard to say for sure, but so far the first round has been unreal for its intensity and in some cases, pure dirtiness.
"Until you are out there, you don't really realize the frustration level and the intensity," rugged winger Ryane Clowe of the Sharks said Sunday. "You don't want to feel like you're getting pushed around, you want to push back. It's a fine line. And skill guys, too, are getting feisty."
But Clowe disagrees with the notion that there's a lack of respect among his peers.
"If guys are fighting each other, I don't see that as a lack of respect," Clowe said. "But last night, when a guy [Sobotka] sucker-punches you, that's not something I'd do. But I think for the most part, respect among players is there. The only thing is, sometimes you're not thinking straight when your blood's boiling."
There's a lot of that going around these days.
As for the lack of suspension to Weber on the first night of the playoffs, Clowe said it's a stretch to believe players consciously viewed that as an opportunity to push the envelope because of it.
"I really don't think anybody thought, 'Anything goes now,'" Clowe said. "I think there's respect there, but sometimes it's hard to control [your emotions]."
The Blues were angry about T.J. Galiardi's hit on Andy McDonald, as well as Brent Burns' elbow on Scott Nichol, while the Sharks were beside themselves after Sobotka beat up Moore and Roman Polak of the Blues destroyed Justin Braun late in Saturday night's game. But retribution will have to come on the scoreboard, they said Sunday.
"Every penalty is so important," Sharks captain Joe Thornton said on the eve of Game 3 at HP Pavilion. "Every minute of the game means so much. You don't want to take stupid penalties. You want to stay out of the box and play five-on-five as much as you can. ...
"It's a fine line; you definitely don't want to cross that line. Both teams have done a good job and competed hard so far."
It is indeed a fine line. And that line has been crossed way too often so far in the first round.
Calm down, boys.