BUFFALO – At the 18:30 mark of Friday’s second period, the New York Rangers penetrated the Sabres’ unusually stingy defense, generating a prime scoring opportunity on goalie Devon Levi.
To that point, Levi, 21, had seen little action – he faced just two shots in the first period – during his highly anticipated NHL debut.
Prior to the Sabres’ thrilling 3-2 overtime win, coach Don Granato said he believed the rookie’s presence would force his team to clamp down, and they did, limiting the Rangers to nine shots through nearly 40 minutes.
When they broke through late in the second period, Levi showcased his quick lateral movement and ability to read the play, stymieing Kaapo Kakko’s one-timer from the right circle.
The Sabres portion of the bipartisan crowd of 18,009 at KeyBank Center, which cheered the youngster at every opportunity, loved it. A loud “Le-vi, Le-vi, Le-vi” chant quickly broke out after he preserved the 2-1 lead.
“It was unbelievable,” an excited Levi said of hearing the chants. “The fans were unreal. It’s so nice having that support coming in as a new guy.”
That save turned out to be a harbinger for the third period, as Levi performed brilliantly, stopping 19 of the 20 shots he faced.
Adam Fox knotted the game at 2 at 9:45, stuffing the puck in. Levi stopped Artemi Panarin’s shot from the slot late in regulation, setting the stage for winger Jeff Skinner’s winner 1:49 into overtime.
“I love it,” Levi said of staring down Panarin with the game on the line. “There’s nothing else I’d rather (see). That’s why I’m there. I’m there to stop the puck. If I didn’t want that to happen, I think there’d be something wrong. It’s my job, so I just love what I do.”
After Skinner beat goalie Jaroslav Halak from the slot, instead of rushing to the goal scorer, the Sabres all skated to Levi at the other end of the ice.
“It just goes to show how great the group is in the room,” said Levi, who made 31 saves. “They’re a bunch of great guys who are super warm and welcoming as well. Coming into this dressing room is easy.”
Sabres coach Don Granato said of the celebration: “That’s a nice touch.”
As Levi walked to the Sabres dressing room following the game, general manager Kevyn Adams congratulated and hugged him. After the door opened and he entered the room, cheers could be heard.
“It was a dream come true,” Levi said of the game, which he played before about 20-some family members and friends. “I’ve dreamt of that moment my whole life. To have my family and friends here as well, who have been dreaming for this moment their lives with me, it’s just incredible to have that support.”
The Sabres dictated the pace early, jumping out to a 2-0 lead. Rookie winger JJ Peterka opened the scoring at 11:20, his second straight game with a goal. In his return from an upper-body injury, winger Jordan Greenway scored a nifty goal 7:39 into the second period, one-handing the puck past Halak as he fended off 6-foot-6 defenseman Ben Harpur.
Kakko narrowed it to 2-1 12:17 into the second period, knocking the puck out of the air in close.
By then, Levi, who signed his entry-level contract and left Northeastern on March 17, had settled into the game.
“I’ve got to give credit to the boys, they made the start a little bit easy for me,” he said. “It’s something to go in your first NHL game and try to get your feet under you. It was a challenge and they made it easy for me. Once I faced a few shots, I was feeling good and I was ready to go. I just wanted the puck. I was hungry.”
As Levi spoke, the game puck he earned was behind him in his stall. He plans to give it to his parents.
“They’ve brought this moment into existence for me, just helping me from, I think, I started playing hockey when I was 4 or 5,” he said. “My dad got me into the game. I remember I didn’t want to play at first, I was crying, and he pushed me to never quit. I developed a passion for the game because of him and because of my mom bringing me to the rink every day. This goes to them.”
The Sabres, who won 36th game, their most since 2011-12, play a road game tonight against the Philadelphia Flyers.