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roy macgregor

Ottawa Senators goalie Craig Anderson dives to stop a shot against the Leafs on Feb. 4, 2012.

Welcome to The End of the World, NHL version.

We are not speaking of Dec. 21, 2012 – the day, some say, the Mayan Long Count calendar points to as the apocalypse (heck, the NHL hasn't even released the schedule of which teams will be playing that night).

We speak, instead, of the playoff stretch drive that officially got under way with the cessation of all-star festivities and will last through April 7, 2012, when regular-season game No. 1,230 will be played in San Jose (Sharks versus Los Angeles Kings). All 30 teams are scheduled to play that Saturday, with 14 of them destined to play golf on Sunday.

The world collection of conspiracy theories is long – Napoleon's poisoning, John F. Kennedy's assassination, George W. Bush's hand in 9/11, the alien cover-up in Roswell, the Royal Family's role in the drug trade, Y2K, Hitler's old age in South America, Barack Obama's birth certificate, the moon landing taking place in Sudbury, Princess Diana's car crash, the fake Paul McCartney, car engines that run on water, Elvis sightings – and the hockey world is hardly immune to wild plots and thoughts.

More than a century ago, the Toronto Marlies were claiming that Ottawa's Silver Seven had salted the ice between periods in order to slow down the swift Toronto players and allow the Seven to retain the Stanley Cup.

Then, of course, there was Brett Hull's famous "no goal" in triple overtime that won the 1999 Cup for the Dallas Stars over the Buffalo Sabres.

We are still months away from deciding the 2012 Stanley Cup, but already there are as many plots in play as pucks.

The Ottawa Senators, currently on a six-game slide that has fans biting their nails to the quick, are wondering if the league had it in for them by assigning the same referee, Dan O'Rourke, to three of four games during the skid.

The O'Rourke Conspiracy got its start in a 2-1 Ottawa loss to the Anaheim Ducks, when the official refused to call a tripping penalty in the final minute because the dumped Ottawa player in question, Erik Karlsson, was a known "diver." It was the first anyone in Ottawa had heard this.

In subsequent games, Ottawa gets too many penalties, the other team gets too few, the other team gets an unfair penalty shot and the Senators lose a third-period goal that would have tied another game when goalie interference is called.

Obviously, there is a plot line here – or so the postgame radio show callers, even those not slurring their words, claim.

The Senators, of course, are hardly the sole victims.

The Canadiens lose to the New Jersey Devils when Montreal forward Eric Cole is hooked off the puck and the game-winning goal is scored on the turnover. The league, of course, is anxious to see the Devils make the postseason so the revenues will offset the millions the league has been advancing the financially troubled franchise.

The Kings score a final-second goal to beat the Columbus Blue Jackets and replays distinctly show that some hand has hit the pause button on the clock. The Kings, you see, are in a tight playoff race and need every possible point to ensure this vital broadcast market joins the Devils in the postseason.

As for Canadian teams, everyone knows the league cannot bear the thought of insignificant small markets like Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton, advancing deep into the playoffs.

Hard to believe that, back in 1993, New York Islanders head coach Al Arbour was the one accusing the league of a conspiracy to ensure an all-Canadian final between Montreal and the Toronto Maple Leafs. "They've got their own rules," Arbour claimed. "They seem to look the other way."

The Vancouver Canucks can certainly relate to that. As the last Canadian team to reach the final, the Canucks lost the 2011 Stanley Cup to the Boston Bruins when the officials went back to calling games – or not calling them, if you prefer – as they had in the prelockout days of whistle-in-the-pocket hockey rodeo.

Besides, everyone knows NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs are close friends. … And NHL senior vice-president Colin Campbell's son, Gregory, plays for the Bruins. … And NBC needed an American-based team to stage a comeback if it was going to hold a hockey audience in June. …

See how it works?

No matter what happens to your team in the coming weeks, it will be because the league is engineering it all from the top.

And if they deny it, that only proves it.