BUFFALO – After Sabres goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen recently endured a career-worst outing, coach Don Granato decided the rookie needed a break.
So for the next two games, Granato utilized his other netminders, Craig Anderson and Eric Comrie. The rest offered Luukkonen, 23, a chance to focus on practice and rebound from an ugly 7-3 loss to the Calgary Flames on Feb. 11.
When Granato turned to him again Saturday in San Jose, he responded with a stellar outing, making 33 saves in a 4-2 win over the Sharks.
So how will Granato, whose Sabres begin a two-game road trip tonight against the Tampa Bay Lightning, handle Luukkonen in the wake of his performance in Tuesday’s awful 6-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs?
The Finn allowed four goals on 10 shots as the Leafs dominated the Sabres early. Granato has been hesitant to pull his goalies, but he mercifully yanked him for the first time this season just 12:09 into the contest.
Granato prefaced his postgame comments by saying, “This was not on UPL.” The Sabres clearly hung him out to dry. Still, it can be argued he looked wonky on the Leafs’ third and fourth goals, especially Michael Bunting’s tally from the left circle, the final shot he faced.
Luukkonen’s emergence as the No. 1 goalie after Comrie suffered an injury in mid-November has helped buoy the Sabres’ climb into playoff contention. He has usually been their best option and instead of sending him back to the minors, they’ve chosen to carry three goalies.
But he has struggled behind a porous defense this month, compiling a 1-3-0 record with a 5.35 goals-against average and an .856 save percentage in four games.
Granato said on Monday that having started each goalie last week, they’ve all found a rhythm following the bye week. So the Sabres plan to choose their starter differently. With points so precious, they’re going to ride the hot hand.
Perhaps Comrie, 27, will earn more action. After beginning the season as the No. 1 goalie, the newcomer has played sparingly since returning from a seven-week absence.
Still, while he has started just two of the last 16 games, he has won both contests.
Anderson, 41, looked solid in relief of Luukkonen against Toronto, stopping 17 of the 18 shots he faced. His last game prior to Tuesday’s relief appearance, a 5-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 13, was arguably his worst outing this season.
The Sabres have carefully handled the veteran’s workload, and it seems unlikely they would suddenly want him to become the starter down the stretch.
If the American catches fire, however, maybe they’ll award him another game here or there. Since Jan. 1, he has registered a 1-3-1 mark with a 3.10 goals-against average and an .896 save percentage in six games. Prior to that, he compiled a 7-4-1 record with a 2.65 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage in 13 outings.
So Luukkonen might sit tonight and Friday against the Florida Panthers, but it seems like Granato wants to make sure the youngster plays again soon.
“He’s capable,” he said following Tuesday’s loss when asked where Luukkonen’s game is right now. “You can’t predict the future, but he comes to work every day. The areas that you do predict, his confidence is still strong by virtue of watching him in San Jose the other night. …
“Tonight we were out of sync. We played a team that was absolutely in sync and whose top players executed because they were in sync and they were feeling it. For UPL, I don’t want to look at something and carry negative forward baggage. It’s not healthy. This is not something that doesn’t happen around the league at times.”
The Sabres did not practice Wednesday because of weather-related travel concerns.