Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has played 41 games this season. ©2024, Micheline Veluvolu

Sabres goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen feeding off heavy workload, earning spot among NHL’s elite

BUFFALO – Following a rare breather a week ago, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has resumed one of the NHL’s heaviest workloads as the Sabres’ No. 1 goalie.

Tonight against the New York Islanders at KeyBank Center, Luukkonen, 25 is expected to start his third straight game. The Finn has earned the nod in 11 of the last 12 contests and 21 of the last 24 since Jan. 11.

Luukkonen has played an NHL-high 22 times during that dizzying stretch, yet has thrived under the intense pressure that accompanies his gig, posting Vezina-type numbers: 13 wins, a 1.99 goals-against average, a .926 save percentage and three shutouts.

Among goalies with at least 10 starts over that time entering Wednesday’s schedule, those gaudy numbers rank second, first, second and first, respectively.

For the first time since they traded Ryan Miller 10 years ago, the Sabres have an undisputed No. 1 netminder who stands among the league’s elite.

Other than last season, the Sabres haven’t played many meaningful games in March during their NHL-record 12-year playoff drought. So tonight’s game is significant.

They trail the Islanders, who own the Eastern Conference’s second wild card spot, by five points.

Several factors have contributed to the Sabres unexpectedly moving into the postseason race. Luukkonen’s emergence, of course, is the biggest.

His dynamic play has had a ripple effect, instilling confidence in the entire team.

“He’s played not as a No. 1 goalie, but as a top goalie in the league over the last … two months plus,” Sabres coach Don Granato said following Wednesday’s practice. “That’s everything in the game of hockey. That’s your margin. That’s your margin between winning and losing is … save percentages, the goals against. …

“If you have a goaltender that’s playing well, you’re probably winning hockey games. “And if you have a goaltender that percentages are a little lower, you’re probably losing hockey games at the NHL level.”

As the Sabres utilize Luukkonen every opportunity they can, he has developed a rhythm he hasn’t felt since perhaps his final year of junior hockey in 2018-19, when he played a career-high 53 games.

“You’re not mentally struggling with not knowing when the next game is,” Luukkonen said last week. “It just kind of keeps on rolling. You know you have a practice day and you have the next game coming and you know you’re gonna get the start.

“It’s a good feeling and it kind of takes a load off from your mental game because you know that you get the next game pretty fast usually. It has helped me a lot.”

Remember, following goalie Devon Levi’s arrival late last season, Luukkonen played just one of the final eight games. He waited until the seventh contest to play this year.

The 6-foot-5, 217-pound Luukkonen has played 41 times this season, his highest NHL total and one shy of the pro high he set last season between the Sabres and Rochester Americans.

Granato said Luukkonen’s ability to handle his demanding workload is a “testament to his base.”

“A couple years ago, he would’ve been really challenged in a workload like this, obviously, being a big, big guy,” he said last week. “He’s done a really good job the last few seasons of gaining enough strength and endurance to handle the frame that he carries, that he grew to become as a young guy.

“It does take a while for young guys that have such growth and are so big to play at the speed and then consistency you do in the NHL with games every other night and workload and travel and those sorts of things. So he’s come a long, long ways just in a couple years with how he takes care off his body.”

Luukkonen’s body will certainly be tested down the stretch. The Sabres have 16 games left, including two back-to-back sets. If they stay in the playoff race, he might play 14 or 15 times.

Backup goalie Eric Comrie, who last played in last Thursday’s 4-2 road loss to the Nashville Predators, has compiled a 1-7-0 record and an .864 save percentage in nine games this season.

If the Sabres rest Luukkonen – they play road games Monday against the Seattle Kraken and Tuesday versus the Vancouver Canucks, so it could happen soon – perhaps they’ll recall Levi from Rochester, where he is thriving as the starter.

The Sabres also play on consecutive days March 29 and 30 at KeyBank Center. When they played home games March 2 and 3, Luukkonen started both.

If Luukkonen reaches the 50-game mark, he would become the first Sabres goalie to crack that number since Carter Hutton in 2018-19.

Naturally, Luukkonen listens to his body. On Wednesday, about 14 hours after making 21 saves in a 7-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings, he participated in the Sabres’ short practice. He sat out a late drill that required one goalie.

“I always like to go on the ice,” he said Wednesday. “I like to feel the puck, see the puck and feel the ice. It’s no problem for me to kind of just get what I need on the ice.”

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