SAN JOSE -- Sharks defenseman Craig Rivet played Thursday night without dropping his gloves. This extended his GWF (Games Without Fights) streak to, um, hang on a sec... it's in the notes here somewhere... ah, here we go: One in a row.

They say idle hands are the devil's handiwork, but Rivet's flying fists are no basket of fruit. Last Saturday he beat a merry tattoo on the skull of Dallas' Steve Ott. Tuesday he squared off against a less-than-enthusiastic Ryan Carter of Anaheim.

Rivet won his battles, but the Sharks lost both wars. We'll get back to that intriguing bit of cause-without-effect shortly. For now it's important to note the activity, and to note that this isn't a case of Rivet having a bee under his bonnet. Everybody's doing it.

According to hockeyfights.com, fighting majors are up 27.5 percent in the NHL this season (on top of a 6.6 percent increase last season). Meanwhile, according to data on NHL.com, scoring is down 5.4 percent (on top of a 4.5 percent decrease last season).

There's no easy way to quantify obstruction in the neutral zone other than to say it seems the no-tolerance policy introduced two seasons ago is no longer in play.

"You can definitely see where the refs have eased off the obstruction calls," Rivet said Thursday, before the Sharks hosted Phoenix. "There's a lot of things you can do now that you couldn't do two years ago."

Add it all up and it smells a lot like 2003-04, the last season before the lockout. To refresh your memory: 1.27 fighting majors per game, barely more than five goals per game, and an inordinate amount of slow-dancing in the neutral zone to the strains of Journey's, "Clutching, Grabbing, Squeezing."

Yes? Not necessarily, Rivet said.

"I think any time you see a Stanley Cup champion," he said, "and Anaheim just won the Cup, all the players take note of how they did it."

The Ducks, in addition to being highly skilled, were birds of prey last season, leading the NHL with 71 fighting majors.

"As far as goal scoring," Rivet said, "I think that teams are starting to understand the game with no red line."

Sharks general manager Doug Wilson sees the laws of physics at work. You know -- action, reaction. Starting with the salary cap, which brings parity.

"You can't look at the schedule anymore and say, 'That's an easy game,'" Wilson said.

The L.A. Kings thank you for the gratuitous compliment. But we digress.

And with parity comes an emphasis on defense, Wilson said, "because it's easier to coach." The latest tactic, you may have noticed, is to meet attacking teams at the blue line, then collapse five defenders around the net. It's riveting stuff.

The physicality is in part an outgrowth of the unbalanced schedule. For example: On Saturday the Sharks will play Anaheim for the third time in seven days. Familiarity breeds contempt -- and in the case of Anaheim's George Parros, the NHL's fighting major meister two seasons ago, a stinging right cross.

So this may not be a case of hockey rediscovering its time-tested equilibrium. It could be standard-issue evolution. Or it could, as Wilson suggested, be a cyclical thing.

But if the net effect is an emphasis on physical play and a downturn in offense, the question persists: How does this affect the Sharks?

"I like to think we're the chameleon," Wilson said. "We can play any style."

That's a nice thought, but it doesn't jibe with the assessment of the Sharks from outside the building. From there they are known as a terrific group of players -- big, strong, fast -- when things are going their way. But they also are known as players who, when things aren't going their way, can't summon the will to steer a game back in their direction.

It's not a lack of heart, necessarily. It's a matter of resolve. And here we find ourselves back at the Rivet conundrum. Sure, his recent pummelings were instantly gratifying. But they didn't seem to carry much inspirational value.

You can find an arched eyebrow or two inside the building as well. Coach Ron Wilson frequently comments on the Sharks' inability to overcome adversity, to the point where it would behoove him to keep preprinted index cards to hand out after bad losses, reading: "One little thing goes wrong, and the wheels come off."

Doug Wilson said shortly before Thursday's opening faceoff that he would rather his team face challenges now instead of sailing through the regular season and encountering them in the playoffs. Well, Merry Christmas to you.

The NHL has taken a turn for the rougher and tougher. Now we see if the Sharks can follow suit.

Contact Gary Peterson at gpeterson@bayareanewsgroup.com.