BUFFALO – While the Sabres have three goalies battling for two spots, Devon Levi, having started seven critical late-season games last year, likely secured his place and the No. 1 job months ago.
In his first preseason start Tuesday, Levi, 21, only strengthened the belief he will be the opening night starter, stopping all 19 shots he faced in 40 minutes of action.
Goalie Devin Cooley, a free agent ticketed for the AHL, relieved Levi for the third period, making 19 saves as the Sabres cruised to a 4-1 win over the Boston Bruins’ junior varsity squad.
Levi looked sharp throughout the night, making 13 saves in the first period and six in the second, including three during a late 20-second flurry. The final stop earned the rookie loud cheers from the announced crowd of 11,153 fans in KeyBank Center.
“It wasn’t pretty, but we were kind of five guys in the crease kind of scrambling to keep it out,” Levi said. “So found a way to keep it out. So, yeah, exactly those moments happen all the time. So you don’t see that in a summer skate.”
Preseason games, of course, often feature breakdowns and wonky play.
“You don’t know what these games are going to be like,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “You’re not in a rhythm. Typically it’s a lot more chaotic, and it was in spurts only, which meant he had to concentrate and keep his focus during some long stretches of not a lot of action. When there was action around him, he was sharp.”
Levi will receive more preseason action. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who won a team-high 17 games last season, is expected to start tonight’s preseason game against the Toronto Maple Leafs in St. Thomas, Ontario. Eric Comrie, the No. 1 goalie early last season, started Sunday afternoon’s opener.
Winger Jeff Skinner’s power-play goal 3:22 into the game opened the scoring. Defenseman Riley Stillman made it 2-0 33 seconds into the second period. Wingers Brandon Biro and Filip Cederqvist (empty net) scored third-period goals.
Oskar Steen broke up the Sabres’ shutout bid in the waning minutes.
Placing rookie Zach Benson on the top line with Skinner and center Tage Thompson against the Bruins wasn’t a reward, Granato said.
“He’s a good hockey player,” Granato said prior to the game. “He’s earned it in the sense that he might only be 18 years old, but he’s developed himself enough to be able to keep up with those two in … preseason.”
Benson, the 13th overall pick this year, recorded an assist Tuesday and was also stopped on a breakaway. He has quickly earned the Sabres’ trust in his first NHL training camp. The winger has been practicing with Thompson and Skinner.
“He absolutely has shown in practices he can keep up with the pace, he can keep up cognitively,” Granato said.
He added: “We want to put him in situations where he can learn a lot, gain a lot of information.”
Prior to the game, the 5-foot-10, 170-pound Benson called having an opportunity to play with Skinner and Thompson “surreal.”
“The one thing that stands out is how nice they are as people,” he said. “If I have a question for them, I can ask and they’re totally open to share their answer and express to me what they think is the best thing is to do.”
In Sunday afternoon’s preseason opener in Washington, Benson, scored in a 4-3 shootout win over the Capitals. He showcased instant chemistry playing with center Tyson Jost and Jordan Greenway for the first time.
“I can’t give enough credit to Josty and Greener for just calming me,” Benson said. “I was nervous going into the game and about 10 minutes in, I felt settled down.”
The Sabres scratched winger Alex Tuch on Tuesday and inserted rookie Olivier Nadeau. Tuch, who was on the game roster the Sabres released Monday, has been dealing with soreness, Granato said.
“He’s fine, no issue at this point,” Granato said.
But after Tuch skated Tuesday morning, Granato told him he doesn’t need to risk playing.
Notes: Sabres defenseman Joseph Cecconi skated a team-high 24 minutes, 3 seconds and recorded a plus-3 rating. … Williamsville native Trevor Kuntar, a rookie winger, played for the Bruins. … Veteran winger Milan Lucic, who returned to the Bruins this season, was booed throughout the night. Lucic steamrolled goalie Ryan Miller in 2011. Apparently, fans haven’t forgotten.