BUFFALO – Fair or not, the knock on Sabres goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen is his inability to make big saves at critical times.
In his 50-game career, the Finn hasn’t delivered many of those momentum-changing stops that might preserve a lead or keep a contest tied or within striking distance.
That’s why Luukkonen’s superb save on star Mikko Rantanen with the game tied at 0 early in Sunday afternoon’s 4-0 win holds so much significance.
The Sabres started slowly against the Colorado Avalanche, icing the puck or giving it away about five times in the opening minutes. But they had settled down when Rantanen grabbed Samuel Girard’s pass in the slot and unleashed a wicked one-timer.
Falling behind almost halfway through the first period could’ve deflated the Sabres and changed the complexion of the game. Luukkonen made sure the contest remained tied at 0, quickly moving over and stymieing Rantanen with his left pad.
Then at 10:32, winger JJ Peterka opened the scoring and the Sabres cruised to their fourth victory this season before the crowd of 15,717 fans in KeyBank Center.
“I feel like that (save on Rantanen) was a big one just because we’re not going behind in the early stage of the first and we go and get the first goal of the game which is huge,” Luukkonen said after making 24 saves in his first NHL shutout. “That felt good.”
Sabres center Tage Thompson said: “That goes in and you get on your heels a bit maybe, and we didn’t have that at all tonight.”
— Buffalo Hockey Moments (@SabresPlays) October 29, 2023
With goalies Eric Comrie and Devon Levi both sidelined with lower-body injuries, the Sabres sorely need Luukkonen, 24, to be their backbone.
So far, he has won both of his starts this season. He took the loss in Friday’s 5-4 setback to the New Jersey Devils after relieving Comrie.
Luukkonen made six saves Sunday before Peterka scored for the second straight game.
“For him to keep them off the scoreboard until we could get our legs under us and find our rhythm was everything,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “You don’t want to give that team confidence, and he denied that with some early action against him. And once we got to our game obviously, it’s a different story from that point.
“They didn’t get the confidence. Now we get our confidence going and get our game going.”
The 6-foot-5, 217-pound Luukkonen has endured a lot since joining the Sabres for good almost a year ago. Shortly after his arrival in mid-November, he won 12 of 15 starts, grabbing the No. 1 job.
But he struggled as the winter progressed, and he did not play in the final seven games.
Today, Luukkonen believes he’s a much better goalie than last season.
“Stronger,” he said. “I move better. I’m in better places. Positioning is better. (Assistant coach Mike) Bales has been helping me out on that. It’s been the most improved thing, overall the positioning and reading the play better.”
His ability to read the play and position himself was evident Sunday.
“We felt really comfortable with him in net,” Thompson said. “He was square to every shot, controlling rebounds. I thought he looked really good. When you got a goalie back there that’s dialed in, it just gives you that comfort in your D-zone and allows you to be a little more aggressive.”
Center Casey Mittelstadt and winger Tyson Jost scored second-period goals to seal perhaps the Sabres’ best effort this season. Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin added a late empty-net goal, extending his career-long point streak to eight games.
“We needed to have a game like that, and it just happened to be against one of the top teams in the league,” said defenseman Erik Johnson, who joined the Sabres this season after 13 years with the Avalanche. “So I think that’s a good measuring stick for us. I mean, that’s a team that knows how to win.”
Notes: Sabres defenseman Jacob Bryson made his season debut in place of the suspended Connor Clifton, skating 13 minutes, 28 seconds. “Brys was really good,” Granato said. “Showed a confidence level that he just did not have last year. Very confident, and that’s key in this league.” … The Sabres sent goalie Devin Cooley, who was recalled Saturday to back up Luukkonen, back to the Rochester Americans following the game. General manager Kevyn Adams said Saturday Levi could return to practice Tuesday. He said Comrie will likely miss at least a few weeks. … The Sabres have today off.