Well, when the 2011-12 season schedule came out, it was hard to not draw big red circles around the dates of April 1 and April 7.

Obviously, both games are against the Flyers and bookend the final week of the regular season for the Penguins.

In general, this week was going to be a measuring stick with those two games along with a road game against Boston and another home contest against the Rangers.

As for today’s game, it started out well enough for the Penguins. A fluke goal by Steve Sullivan put them up 1-0 just 1:14 into the contest.

Then, James Neal finished off a play set up by Evgeni Malkin at 4:58 of the first period to put Pittsburgh up 2-0. The Penguins had the Flyers on the ropes and their coach, Peter Laviolette, knew it.

He called a timeout and the Flyers began to play better and eventually rattled off five unanswered goals en route to a 6-4 win.

The game naturally boiled over with about 1:30 left in the contest, but the seeds were planted several minutes earlier.

Brayden Schenn cross-checked Sidney Crosby in the back completely away from the play and got called for it. However, he didn’t serve any time in the box because it happened in the black hole of time that apparently doesn’t exist after a reviewed goal is awarded.

Here’s what happened:

Steve Sullivan ripped a slapshot off the post and into the net. The puck hit a camera inside the net and came right back out. The official on the ice waived it off, claiming the puck had only hit the post and deflected away.

As the play went back up the ice, Schenn cross-checked Crosby.

After review, the goal was awarded to the Penguins and Schenn was let off the hook. Essentially, the way the rule was interpreted here, any number of shenanigans could have taken place after that goal and they all would have been wiped off the board.

Seems odd to me, but that’s what happened.

Anyway, Jakub Voracek hit the empty net to make it 6-3 and Dan Bylsma put his fourth line out with 1:15 left.

I’ll repeat that because apparently a certain bench boss from Philadelphia doesn’t think it’s important, when it actually very much is.

The Penguins put their fourth line out, down three goals, with 1:15 left in the contest.

A few seconds after the puck dropped, Joe Vitale delivers a check worthy of Brendan Shanahan’s “How To Cleanly Deliver A Hard Hit In The New NHL,” instructional video.

As is the culture in the NHL these days, every Flyer on the ice freaks out and a melee ensues at center ice.

Again, all of this broke out over a clean hit in the neutral zone.

Some might argue that Vitale injuring of Grossmann in the first period was a factor in this as well. However, that was also an unintentional result of a hit in the corner. Yes, they appeared to go leg to leg, but Vitale did not extend his leg out in an attempt to injure Grossmann.

Laviolette lost his mind and shattered a stick over the glass on the bench, then proceeds to do a tight-rope walk of sorts to get around the glass separating the benches to yell at the Penguins’ coaches.

Tony Granato answered the bell and made his way to the same position on the Penguins’ side of things and engaged in a yelling match with Laviolette.

While I don’t know what was said, I’ll bet it wasn’t about which store they had gotten their game suits from.

Trapped in the middle of the exchange was NBC’s Pierre McGuire, who appeared to be plotting his escape should a brawl break out between the coaches.

The person I feel bad for during that exchange isn’t McGuire, because you know secretly he loved every second of it. No, the person I feel bad for is the person in the NBC truck who was monitoring for swearing so as to abide by FCC guidelines.

Eventually, things calmed down and both Granato and Laviolette were tossed from the game.

After the game, Laviolette called Bylsma “gutless” for putting the fourth line out there in that situation.

Really? It’s a gutless move to put your fourth line on the ice, down three goals, with about a minute left in the contest.

It’s not like any of the Penguins dropped their gloves and just attacked a member of the Flyers after the puck dropped following the goal.

Vitale lit up Briere in the neutral zone with the cleanest hit we’ve probably seen this season.

So much for playing to the buzzer I suppose, right Laviolette?

What advantage is there for Bylsma to put Crosby or Malkin out in that situation? It’s not like injuries have been a problem for this team over the last two seasons or anything.

Speaking of problems, it’s no secret there are some glaring ones with the Penguins right now. It’s kind of expected that the team would have a little bit of a letdown after a stretch where they went 13-0-1.

However, it seems like they have completely forgotten how to play defense. It’s easy to follow the masses and pin a lot of blame on Paul Martin and his $5 million salary, but there is some truth to it.

To his credit, he had been playing much better during their winning streak. Now, after a not-so slight bump in the road over the last four games, he’s been visible for all the wrong reasons.

But, it’s not just him.

Every single defenseman on the roster has looked lost over the last week or so. The Penguins are getting completely burned by stretch passes left and right and gap control entering the defensive zone has been pedestrian at best at times.

It doesn’t matter which goalie is in net when they are constantly facing odd-man rushes and breakaways. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Marc-Andre Fleury has allowed at least four goals in each of the last three games either.

There are already rumblings of the Fleury haters starting to come out from under the rocks they’ve been hiding under for months, but this isn’t a goaltending issue.

This is a team defense issue first and foremost. The Penguins know it, their opponents know it and the only way it changes is to make a commitment to playing better defensively.

Another glaring problem is having five forwards out on the ice for the power play. With a team struggling to play solid defense with defenseman on the ice, what sense does it make to leave them all on the bench with a man advantage?

It hasn’t worked for three-plus games and has shown little to no signs of life.

Sure, on paper having Neal, Malkin, Crosby, Kunitz and Sullivan sounds intimidating, but in practice it has been anything but.

If anything, I find myself being terrified that a shorthanded goal is looming in the not too distant future.

Today’s loss all but assures a first round matchup with the Flyers. There are three games left in the regular season and instead of fighting for first place, the Penguins now find themselves fighting to hold on to home ice for the first round.

Regardless of what happens, the next couple of weeks are going to be a bumpy ride.

You can follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sheavedice


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