ST. THOMAS, Ont. – Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen never expected he would spend five months in Buffalo, win 17 games or briefly emerge as the Sabres’ No. 1 goalie.
After all, Luukkonen, 24, began last season in the AHL before Eric Comrie’s injury forced the Sabres to recall him in mid-November. He quickly emerged as their top option, playing 33 games.
From Dec. 4 until Jan. 24, he won 12 of his 15 starts, including eight of nine. He cooled after that, never winning more than two consecutive outings.
Devon Levi’s arrival abruptly ended his rookie season in early April as the Sabres fought furiously for a playoff spot. Still, despite sitting out the final seven games, he learned something valuable through the ups and downs he endured.
“(I) know I can be a goaltender in this league,” Luukkonen said Tuesday in KeyBank Center.
Right now, he’s fighting with Levi, 21, and Comrie, 28, for playing time during training camp. The Sabres will almost certainly keep two goalies after utilizing three much of last season.
Luukkonen must clear waivers to be sent to the minors, so common sense says he will be staying up.
But can he grab the No. 1 job? Levi, having started those critical late-season games, looks to be in the driver’s seat.
Luukkonen made his preseason debut in Wednesday’s Kraft Hockeyville game, stopping 25 of the 28 shots he faced in 40 minutes of action in a 5-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs at Joe Thornton Community Centre.
With the game tied at 1 late in the second period, he allowed breakaway goals to Sam Lafferty (short-handed) and Max Domi in a span of 1:28. Goalie Michael Houser replaced him for the third period, a move that was planned before the game.
“It’s the first game of the preseason, first game of the season,” Luukkonen said following the game. “I’d rather try to see the whole picture, see what I did right right, what I did wrong. In the end, I felt good.”
Luukkonen will likely play again soon. The Sabres have four preseason games left, starting with tonight’s road contest against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The 6-foot-5, 217-pound Luukkonen carried Buffalo’s “goalie of the future” label before Levi developed into perhaps hockey’s best netminding prospect. But the Finn has probably never had more belief in his abilities. He spoke confidently about his development last season and excitement for the upcoming year.
“(I learned) just how confident and how calm calm and big of a presence I can be in the net,” Luukkonen said. “Just being the difference in the game and kind of taking the big step maybe last year knowing how good of a goaltender I can be. Just try to find consistency on it.”
Prior to last season, Luukkonen had played just 13 NHL games.
“Being here last year on a day-to-day basis and seeing what the practices are like up there, what travel is like, what the schedule is like … was a big thing for me,” said Luukkonen, who underwent minor ankle surgery following last season. “Knowing how the game is played here helped a lot, too.”
Overall, Luukkonen compiled a 17-11-4 record with a 3.61 goals-against average and an .891 save percentage last season. In 12 games after Feb. 1, he registered a 4-6-2 mark with a 4.22 goals-against average and an .876 save percentage.
Levi’s presence, of course, has the potential to make Luukkonen a better goalie as they compete for playing time. Following last season, he said in watching Levi immediately earn the Sabres’ trust, he realized he needed to be better.
“When you have two guys who can push each other, that means we probably have to push less,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “Peer pressure in that regard is way better than a coach breathing down your neck. So, yeah, it’s a luxury to have guys pushing each other. That is an area that we’ve been very adamant about creating that dynamic within our organization – by adding more talented players that can push other players next to them. That’s really been something that’s kind of moved us along.”
A Buffalo lineup filled with players on AHL contracts and young prospects got outshot 41-15 by the Leafs.
Defensemen Jeremy Davies and Henri Jokiharju scored for the Sabres.
When the Sabres arrived via a police escort at Joe Thornton Community Centre to prepare for Wednesday’s game, defenseman Jacob Bryson, who grew up in nearby London, left the bus first to greet excited fans.
“I would say I was ordered,” Bryson joked.
Of course, Bryson gladly, as he said, “led the charge.” He occasionally practiced at the 2,220-seat rink growing up.
“It’s very special,” he said. “This will be one of the games I remember in my career, for sure.”
The Sabres greeted throngs of Leafs fans and signed autographs before going through a normal pregame skate in the packed rink.
Episode 4 of #Buffalo Press Box is out!@NickSabatoGNN and I analyze the Bills’ win over the Commanders, Sunday’s massive game w/the Dolphins and the #Sabres‘ busy week of preseason games:https://t.co/TwBYCsS2gY
— Bill Hoppe (@BillHoppeNHL) September 27, 2023