Marc-Andre Fleury made history Saturday.
And he knew it.
After the Penguins' 3-0 victory against the New York Rangers at Consol Energy Center was complete and Fleury had muscled past Tom Barrasso in the franchise record book with his 23rd career shutout, he tossed his stick to a fan before adjourning to the locker room.
A nice gesture, to be sure, but the hard truth is that Fleury likely could have chucked his stick -- and most of his other equipment -- into the seats before the game, and still had a reasonably good shot at not giving up a goal.
The Rangers' eye-dropper offense simply isn't very menacing these days. Few of the 23 shots they launched at him were a significant threat to reach the back of the net, although New York did manufacture a few quality opportunities, mostly in the second period.
"That's probably when they came out the strongest," Fleury said. "Other than that, I thought our guys did a great job helping me out, keeping the shots from far away. Not too many scoring chances."
While there really is no such thing as an easy shutout at this level, the one Fleury earned Saturday was less demanding than most. Not one, he acknowledged, he would rate among the toughest of his 23.
"I don't think it was," Fleury said. "But I'll take it."
He certainly had no reason to fret about the details, especially since he hadn't held an opponent without a goal in his previous 36 appearances. That streak dated to a shutout against the Rangers Feb. 21, 2012.
Records such as the one Fleury now owns don't come easy. Or, especially in this case, quickly.
"I was looking forward to getting it," Fleury said. "Finally."
Fleury's shutout means the Penguins (21-8) will take an eight-game winning streak into their game at 12:38 p.m. today against Boston at Consol Energy Center.
Beating the Rangers gave them sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference, pending the outcome of Montreal's game Saturday night at New Jersey. The Penguins have won seven consecutive games, including three this season, against the Rangers.
Beau Bennett gave Fleury the only goal he would need when he beat New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist from the right dot 90 seconds into the game. That was the only puck that eluded Lundqvist until Tyler Kennedy and Pascal Dupuis scored 43 seconds apart in the third period.
"That's kind of a testament to our [defense]," Bennett said. "We kind of kept that 1-0 lead for a while, then turned it on in the third."
Strong closing kicks have become a standard part of the Penguins' repertoire lately. They have outscored their past four opponents, 9-0, in the third period.
That's not just some fortunate coincidence or simply evidence of the Penguins' ability to elevate their game at pivotal moments. It is, at least in part, a tangible payoff for a tactic that's an integral part of their game plan.
"We invest [physically] early in games by putting pucks behind their defensemen and hitting their defensemen, by playing in the offensive zone," Dupuis said. "It looks like lately, it's tiring teams out, and we take care of it in the third."
The Penguins have outscored opponents, 40-23, in the third period this season, and there's little reason to think those numbers will begin to skew consistently in the other direction anytime soon.
"The way we're playing right now, we're limiting teams, limiting their chances," right winger Craig Adams said. "We're keeping the shots down, we're keeping the chances down.
"We're better in our end, and we're playing a lot in their end. It's a work-in-progress, but I feel like the last five or six games, you can really see it starting to take shape."
Goaltending, of course, is the most critical variable in team defense, but Adams said the Penguins have put a renewed emphasis on giving their goalies a realistic opportunity to earn shutouts.
"It's definitely something we want to focus on more than we have in the past," he said.
"The old superstition of not talking about [shutouts] never really worked for us or for [Fleury], so we're starting to talk about it now. When we get a chance for one, we want to get one."
At the same time, they realize shutouts -- even history-making ones -- are not the statistic that matters most.
"It's great to see him get one, but, at the same time, we all know how good [Fleury] is," Dupuis said.
"He doesn't need shutouts and records for us to know that he's our go-to guy; the guy we trust to win games."
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter: @MolinariPG. First Published March 17, 2013 4:00 AM