BUFFALO – That miraculous save was a result of Sabres goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen’s experience and growing confidence, not luck.
Sure, it helped that Jimmy Vesey couldn’t lift the puck high as Luukkonen lunged across the crease during the third period of Monday’s 5-1 road win over the New York Rangers.
Still, the Finn, Sabres coach Don Granato explained, now reads plays so well he knew Vesey was lurking in the left circle, waiting for Erik Gustafsson to feed him from the opposite circle.
“He knew before, ‘OK, there’s a guy over there and I’m going to have to do this if it goes over there,’” Granato said following Wednesday’s practice in KeyBank Center. “He already knew ahead of time the potential scenario that could happen, and he was so much better prepared for it that you saw athleticism. You didn’t see surprise.”
Luukkonen, 24, simply pivoted and stymied Vesey’s attempt with his stick, preserving Buffalo’s 2-0 lead.
“Everybody has been excited about it, and, of course, I’m excited about it,” Luukkonen said of his stop.
The dazzling save, one of the NHL’s best this season, put an exclamation point on perhaps the best outing of Luukkonen’s career and extended his winning streak to three games.
— Buffalo Hockey Moments (@SabresPlays) November 28, 2023
On Tuesday, the Sabres sent rookie Devon Levi to the Rochester Americans, ending their three-goalie rotation and essentially handing the No. 1 job to Luukkonen.
Long before he joined the Sabres late last season, Levi, 21, began overshadowing Luukkonen. Levi’s arrival in March basically ended Luukkonen’s campaign, as he played just one of the final nine games as the Sabres turned to the newcomer during their playoff push.
This season, Levi started the first four games as Luukkonen and Eric Comrie alternated as the backup. Then Luukkonen seized his opportunity as he began earning action while Levi recovered from a lower-body injury.
Entering Thursday’s road game against the St. Louis Blues, Luukkonen had compiled a 6-3-1 record with a 2.54 goals-against average, a .914 save percentage and one shutout in 11 contests this season. He had posted dynamic numbers – 3-0-0, 1.67 and .941 – in his last three outings.
Luukkonen’s .886 high-danger save percentage ranked second in the league, according to NaturalStatTrick.com. His .861 inner slot save percentage stood third, according to Sportlogiq.
“(He looks) more aggressive and confident, more swag,” Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin said of Luukkonen. “… He’s just turning into a really good goalie.”
Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams said Luukkonen has recently looked “calm and confident.”
“He’s a competitive kid, he’s a hard worker, his details on and off the ice have continued to mature and get better and better, and now you’re seeing him perform,” he said.
Four or five years ago, Luukkonen was arguably hockey’s best goaltending prospect and a youngster labeled as Buffalo’s goalie of the future. While it has taken longer than some anticipated – he endured some injuries and struggled at times – he might be transforming into that special player the Sabres expected.
“I feel like I’m a lot better goalie,” he said. “… I’m still getting better during the summers. I put the work in. I think it shows. I feel like the team has been good in front of me, so that’s helped a lot. But I feel, for sure, confident now in the net.”
Luukkonen showcases his confidence and poise in different ways. He said playing like a big goalie and learning how to utilize his 6-foot-5, 217-pound frame has been one key to his success.
“That’s been a big thing for me and that comes over time,” he said.
Luukkonen also said he’s stronger and moves better. He now keeps his feet under him most of the time, allowing him to keep his shoulders square to the puck.
“So there’s a lot that goes into it,” he said. “But also mentally, I have one more year under my belt now here. … Last year … was kind of my first year in the NHL. Kind of knowing what it’s like, what the day-to-day life is like, it helps me a lot, knowing the guys better now.
“I’ve said it’s been a good year for now. I think last year helped me mentally, too.”
As a rookie a year ago, Luukkonen was about to begin a torrid stretch. From Dec. 4 until Jan. 24, he won 12 of his 15 starts, including eight of nine. He struggled after that, never winning more than two consecutive games.
By the end of the season, he was a non-factor as he sat out games.
Luukkonen said in April watching Levi late made him realize he must be better.
“Devon came in last year and he had some real good success for us,” Granato said. “That’s good for somebody in the same peer group to see – somebody we know is capable in UPL. I thought that really has helped UPL and I think that helps Devon.”