BUFFALO – Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen’s run as the Sabres’ starting goalie this season lasted about a week.
Shortly after he grabbed the No. 1 job, he got sick and missed about 10 days. When he returned, rookie Devon Levi had re-established himself following a brief trip to the minors, and the netminders mostly alternated starts about the next month.
But since Dec. 30, Luukkonen, who posted a 28-save shutout in Monday afternoon’s 3-0 win over the hapless San Jose Sharks, has emerged as the Sabres’ top option again.
The Finn, 24, started his third straight game Monday, rewarding coach Don Granato’s belief by blanking an opponent for the second time this season.
“It’s great to see him take advantage of (his start) because that means success in the form of a win,” Granato said. “I didn’t give him it. He’s earned it. It’s clear.”
It’s crystal clear. Luukkonen has performed dynamically during his last five starts, compiling a 4-1-0 record with a 1.40 goals-against average and a .950 save percentage.
Luukkonen, fresh off Saturday afternoon’s 1-0 loss to the Vancouver Canucks, said his teammates’ sturdy defensive play around him has buoyed his hot streak. The Sabres have recently showcased structure, keeping opponents to the outside and limiting their scoring chances.
“How well we’ve been playing as a team … gives me confidence, too,” he said. “I mean, I think that’s a key as a goalie, when you have confidence and you feel good in the net, that kind of boosts your own game, too. Just I feel like getting a couple good starts in a row helps a lot, too.
“Getting trust from your coaching staff, too. It’s all those things that kind of combine and give me confidence to play.”
On Monday before an announced crowd of 16,186 fans in KeyBank Center, Luukkonen helped the Sabres find their game following an unexpected day off. They stayed home Sunday as a snowstorm battered the region, then had a noon start – it was moved up an hour so fans could watch the Buffalo Bills – without the benefit of a morning skate.
“A big part today is our team hasn’t skated and Devon hasn’t skated so it’s not even fair to put Devon in today,” Granato said. “But the real reason Upie was in is because he played well and he’s in a rhythm. He’s been good and he continues to get better.”
He added: “I said to the team if we had one guy going we had the right guy going. That was Upie until the others got their legs under them. “
Center Casey Mittelstadt opened the scoring 1-0 11:34 into the second period. Winger Alex Tuch’s power-play goal gave the Sabres a 2-0 lead at 14:37.
For the lowly Sharks, who have lost 14 of their last 15 games, that’s almost an insurmountable lead. They’ve scored an NHL-low 88 goals.
Luukkonen was at his best late in the second period, stopping Tomas Hertl’s backhand attempt in close.
Throughout his recent stretch, he has often been a difference-maker, making huge saves at critical times.
“That’s the way I can help the team win, especially on games like this where they stay close until the end,” Luukkonen said. “I think those make a big difference. But it’s more how well we’re playing as a team and you can kind of limit their chances. But, of course, it feels good to make those saves.”
Winger Jordan Greenway added an empty-net goal to seal the game.
Granato said Sabres defenseman Mattias Samuelsson missed Monday’s game with an upper-body injury. Samuelsson, 23, entered concussion protocol during Saturday afternoon’s 1-0 loss to the Vancouver Canucks.
Defenseman Henri Jokiharju, 24, moved into the lineup after sitting out two straight games as a healthy scratch, skating alongside Rasmus Dahlin.
Jokiharju pumped a game-high seven shots on goal while playing 19 minutes, 43 seconds.
Granato said Jokiharju’s “challenge has always just been consistency.”
“With him, usually when he’s off, he can’t get himself back in the game as well,” he said. “When he’s off, usually it’s the game, not a situation.”
Granato said the Finn lacked consistency in his two outings prior to being scratched.
“He was dropping a little bit,” he said. “But he did have four or five games in a row really good. So you hope you pull him out, you give him a breath, he catches his breath and he can come back in and be steady. He’s got to be a steady, reliable defending defenseman.”
“When he keeps things simple offensively, he can be effective – very effective – there. But you got to do it consistently.”
With Samuelsson injured, the Sabres on Monday recalled defenseman Kale Clague from the Rochester Americans for the first time this season before sending him back following the game.
Clague, 25, spent most of last season with the Sabres, playing 33 games. He has compiled two goals and 17 points in 31 contests with the Amerks this season.
To create a roster spot, the Sabres placed winger Jeff Skinner (upper body) on injured reserve.
Notes: Former Sabres winger Justin Bailey, a Williamsville native, is in his first season with the Sharks. Bailey, 28, began the campaign playing on an AHL contract with San Jose’s affiliate, the Barracuda, before earning an NHL deal in late November. … The Sabres also scratched winger Victor Olofsson (healthy). … The Sabres are 21-3-1 all-time against the Sharks at home.