Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen made 40 saves Saturday. ©2024, Micheline Veluvolu

Sabres’ Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stars in win over Penguins: ‘Stood on his head’

PITTSBURGH – Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen calmly faced each breakaway, patiently waiting in position in his crease as Penguins roared toward him. Each time, the Buffalo Sabres goalie stymied his opponent, barely moving and making the stops look easy.

In Saturday’s first period, shortly after Sabres winger Alex Tuch scored 2:53 into the game, superstar Sidney Crosby became Luukkonen’s first victim. In the second period, the Finn thwarted Rickard Rackell’s attempt. Later in the second, he stoned Jake Guentzel.

Each critical save preserved Buffalo’s 1-0 lead.

“He stood on his head and he was probably the biggest reason we won tonight,” Tuch said after the Sabres’ wild 3-1 victory gave them just their second two-game winning streak this season.

In winning back-to-back games for the first time since Oct. 29 and Nov. 1 – “That feels good, huh?” Tuch said of the short streak – coach Don Granato said the Sabres showcased a mentality they have recently lacked.

The Penguins had two first-period goals called back – one for offside, the other for goalie interference – that left the 18,256 fans in PPG Paints Arena howling in disgust. Guentzel tied the game during a two-minute two-man advantage in the third period.

In recent weeks, the Sabres might’ve wilted under similar adversity. On Saturday, they never flinched.

Winger Zemgus Girgensons, who recently returned from a 17-game absence, restored the lead at 15:22, scoring his first goal since Oct. 24. Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin added a late goal into an empty – goalie Tristan Jarry was on his way to the bench – to seal the Sabres’ first win here since Nov. 16, 2021.

“Talk about mojo, swagger and the fact that we didn’t have that, and we played with fear,” Granato said. “Tonight, you don’t come through that game unless you have that swagger and that fearlessness. Even the start. You had two goals (called back) … you got to block it out. And we were able to block that out, Upie was able to block that out, and just continued doing what he did.

“That’s a mental toughness that we need, that mental toughness we have not had.”

Luukkonen displayed mental toughness all night, becoming the Sabres’ backbone while making 40 saves, including those three breakaways.

“They were good reads,” he said of the stops. “It feels good to make those saves in those types of games and those types of situations.”

Tuch said he has never seen Luukkonen display so much poise.

“That was just so much confidence,” he said. “A couple goals against that ended up going back and he didn’t get rattled at all. He went right back in there, made a couple really big saves on breakaways, never wavered.”

Luukkonen, 24, hasn’t wavered in his belief he can be a top-flight NHL goalie. He grabbed the No. 1 job in late November, forcing the Sabres to send rookie Devon Levi to the minors.

But Luukkonen lost his groove when he became sick early last month. The Sabres recalled Levi, who has played so well Granato has started rotating his young netminders as Eric Comrie, the third goalie they carried this season, plays in the AHL.

Luukkonen said Levi, 22, brings out the best in him.

“We both want to play, we both know that,” Luukkonen said. “But we also know that we want to win as a team. It’s great to get those chances for both of us. He has been playing great and helps that I got a good game, too. We’re really excited to keep going.”

Girgensons, who turned 30 on Friday, ended a 15-game goal drought by backhanding the puck past goalie Tristan Jarry in close.

“Traffic at the net, simple play to the net,” Granato said of what Girgensons and his linemates, center Peyton Krebs and Eric Robinson, created. “We’ve talked about it a lot. When you’re willing to work, you’re willing to go to the net and you’re willing to put pucks to the net, that’s how goals happen. They got rewarded for a lot of work.”

The Sabres made one lineup change up front, inserting Robinson and scratching Victor Olofsson. Robinson took Olofsson’s spot at right wing.

They also scratched rookie defenseman Ryan Johnson.

With captain Kyle Okposo sidelined with a lower-body injury, Tuch served as an alternate captain with Girgensons and Dahlin.

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