BUFFALO – After starting four games in eight days to kick off his rookie season, Sabres goalie Devon Levi took a backseat, playing just one of the next nine contests.
Levi, 21, spent 12 days recovering from a lower-body injury and when he returned, goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, 24, had found a groove.
So Sabres coach Don Granato recently began rotating the young netminders. If he holds to it, Levi will play tonight’s game against the Minnesota Wild at KeyBank Center.
In his last start, Saturday’s 6-4 road win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, Levi looked sharp in his first action in 16 days, stopping 24 shots.
“I was having fun, man,” Levi said following Thursday’s practice. “It was just great to be back into the game. Playing against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Toronto, it’s definitely a dream to able to be in that building.”
Levi has been living his NHL dream since late last season, when he left Northeastern and quickly took over Buffalo’s net, starting seven of the final nine games.
This year, the Sabres awarded him the first four games on purpose.
“The grind of his first four games enabled him to gain a different perspective,” Granato said. “You come in with all the energy, excitement and everybody says you played a college season, now you play 82 games, what does that mean?”
For Levi, in addition to adjusting to what can be a grueling NHL schedule, the early outings offered new experiences.
“It helped so much,” he said. “… I saw four different types of games, they were all different. Just four extra games under my belt. If you look at my whole total of NHL games (12), that’s a considerable amount of games. I felt like I got better as I was playing.”
While Levi carried the load late last season and early this one, modern goalies don’t often keep up that crazy pace. The days of a starter playing 70 times a campaign appear to be over. The position is simply too demanding physically and mentally.
So for now, with goalie Eric Comrie working his way back from a lower-body injury, Levi and Luukkonen will share the net.
“Upie’s playing really well,” Levi said. “We’ve got a good goalie tandem and (I’m) good buddies with him. So it’s fun to be able to share a load with someone that you like and both rely on. So I think it’s good for the team.”
A lighter load is new for Levi, who played 64 of Northeastern’s 74 games during his two years in the NCAA.
In college, even as he started nearly every game, Levi’s work ethic almost became legendary. The school’s coaching staff worked with him to ramp it down to stay fresh.
He said when he joined the Sabres, veteran goalie Craig Anderson, who retired in April, told him “rest and recovery is a weapon.”
These days, while Levi loves staying out with his teammates after practice, he knows he must limit how long he spends on the ice.
“Sometimes it can be more beneficial to get off the ice, go get rested and ready for the next day,” he said. “So (I’m) just learning things like that as I’m going, how much I can take and what’s the maximum I can take to get my results and still feel good the next day. So that’s kind of balancing that.”
Levi has also learned how to balance his time off the ice. Pro hockey, of course, is a different lifestyle. He no longer has any schoolwork.
“When I’m home, definitely a little more time to hang out with the guys, get to know everyone, take care of my relationships,” he said. “Just have fun, a little bit of free time, too, to read some books, watch some TV, do some stuff off the ice to get better, just some books that I’m reading.
“So it’s great to have more time to devote to the game also. There’s a little bit of a happy medium where you don’t want to overdo it and go crazy and just be all hockey, hockey, hockey, and then you find yourself a little bit burnt out.”