The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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March 17, 2013

Fleury sets Pens’ shutout mark

PITTSBURGH — Marc-Andre Fleury couldn’t help it. With the Pittsburgh Penguins’ franchise record for career shutouts in sight late in the third period against the New York Rangers on Saturday, the talented if occasionally erratic goalie let his mind drift.

“I wanted it so bad,” Fleury said. “I tried to not jinx it. I was touching wood, but yeah I was looking forward to getting it finally.”

The reeling Rangers offered little resistance.

Fleury stopped 23 shots for his 23rd shutout – one more than Tom Barrasso – and the Penguins beat New York 3-0 for their eighth straight victory.

Beau Bennett, Pascal Dupuis and Tyler Kennedy scored, and Dustin Jeffrey added two assists as the Penguins continued to dominate the series.

Pittsburgh has won seven consecutive meetings with New York, which lost for the fourth time in its last five games. Henrik Lundqvist made 24 saves for the Rangers, but New York failed to score for the third time this season. The Rangers, the best team in the Eastern Conference last spring, trail Pittsburgh by 14 points with six weeks left in the regular season and currently find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.

“It’s gut check time pretty much,” New York defenseman Dan Girardi said. “We’ve got to figure out what’s going on here and play with some serious desperation. We’re falling in the standings here.”

The Penguins continued to head in the opposite direction. Pittsburgh is in firm control of the Atlantic Division and in a race with Boston and Montreal for the conference’s best record, thanks in part to a suddenly responsible defense.

The league’s most potent attack has a tendency to get a little loose with the puck from time to time, flubbing away turnovers that frequently put Fleury and backup Tomas Vokoun into tight spots. Those problems have disappeared in the last week. Pittsburgh has given up only four goals in its last four games and Fleury insists it’s not just by accident.

“For a while there we gave up a lot of goals, but I think everybody kind of tightened up and we’re more conscious of our defensive zone, guys blocking shots and coming back in the zone to help out,” he said. “It’s been great for us.”

Fleury has been pretty good in his own right. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 NHL draft is 10-1 in his last 11 decisions and has back-to-back shutouts against the Rangers.

Then again, the Rangers hardly put up much of a fight. New York didn’t record a shot for the game’s first 10 minutes and save for a brief burst at the start of the second period spent most of the game on its heels while losing its third straight. The Rangers have scored just two goals during the skid.

“I thought today we were in mud, we really struggled, but we righted the ship,” New York coach John Tortorella said. “I thought we played a good second period.  I thought we were in a good spot going into the third period.”

Not for long. Kennedy drew a tripping penalty from New York’s Anton Stralman then cashed in a minute later when he rocketed a one-timer from the left circle past Lundqvist.

Less than 60 seconds later it was 3-0 as Dupuis scored his 14th of the season. The Penguins clamped down over the final 12 minutes, the only drama surrounding Fleury’s pursuit of the shutout mark. New York only really came close to scoring once, when a Carl Hagelin wrist shot knuckled off Fleury’s midsection, fell to the ice and laid tantalizingly close to the goal line. Fleury managed to put his glove on it before it could trickle into the net.

“I think you need a little bit of good bounces here and there to get a shutout and definitely tonight that was a good one there,” Fleury said.

The Rangers spoke openly before the game about the need to get off to a strong start to offset disappointing losses Buffalo and Winnipeg. It didn’t happen.

Bennett gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead barely 90 seconds in, taking a nifty tap pass off the boards from Jeffrey and blistering a slap shot from right circle over Lundqvist’s shoulder. Only brilliant play from the New York goalie prevented things from getting any worse for the Rangers, who needed more than 10 minutes to get off a shot and spent most of the first 20 minutes in a general malaise.

“We wanted to have a big first period and get some energy and ... we ended up watching them play in our own end,” Girardi said.

It happened all too often on a day the Penguins showcased how wide the gap between two teams with Stanley Cup expectations is at the moment.

“That’s why (the Penguins are) where they’re at right now,” Tortorella said. “They seize those opportunities and they make a couple of big plays and we haven’t gotten to our identity consistent enough.”

Notes: Penguins C Evgeni Malkin did not skate on Saturday and he remains out with an undisclosed upper-body injury. Coach Dan Bylsma says there is no timetable on Malkin’s return. The reigning NHL MVP has missed the last four games and eight of Pittsburgh’s last 11 ... Pittsburgh hosts the Boston Bruins today. The Rangers are off until Monday when they host Carolina. ... The Rangers scratched D Stuck Bickel and Matt Gilroy while the Penguins scratched D Deryk Engelland and Roberto Bortuzzo along with Malkin.

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