Buffalo’s Jordan Greenway tries to score on Ottawa goalie Joonas Korpisalo on Wednesday. ©2024, Micheline Veluvolu

Sabres, UPL struggle early in ugly loss to Senators: ‘We let him down’

BUFFALO – Over the past three months, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has not only morphed into the Sabres’ backbone, he has emerged one of the NHL’s elite goalies.

Luukkonen’s dynamic netminding is the biggest reason the Sabres still have a minuscule chance – basically win their final nine games and get a lot of help – of grabbing the Eastern Conference’s second wild card spot and ending their 12-year playoff drought.

So as the Finn struggled mightily early Wednesday, his teammates could’ve showcased some structure or won more battles.

Instead, in an utterly embarrassing display, the Sabres imploded, falling behind 5-0 to the Ottawa Senators during a ghastly first period and losing 6-2.

They offered Luukkonen, their MVP, no help.

“That was probably the worst part,” defenseman Rasmus Dahlin said of the Sabres’ inability to help Luukkonen. “We let him down. He’s been saving us for a long time now. That’s not OK from our side.”

With their season essentially on the line, the Sabres let the Senators, an Atlantic Division rival they lead by seven points in the standings, torch them.

“Simple things we let slip,” said coach Don Granato, whose Sabres allowed five goals in the third period of Thursday’s 8-3 road loss to the Edmonton Oilers. “Simple details, starting with puck battles. We lost battles early. On retrieved pucks, we had body position and lost the battle. Lost some battles to the net.”

Luukkonen looked off from the get-go.

Boris Katchouk’s shot from the right circle hit Mark Kastelic’s stick and trickled through Luukkonen’s pads, and Artem Zub put the loose puck in 2:37 into the game. Then Katchouk tipped Parker Kelly’s shot from the right circle at 4:56. Drake Batherson beat Luukkonen alone in front at 8:49.

After Jakob Chychrun scored from the top of the left circle at 8:49, Luukkonen’s night was mercifully over. He made just five saves before rookie Devon Levi replaced him.

“I’m disappointed we let Upie down, he’s the heart and soul of this team,” said defenseman Connor Clifton, who scored the Sabres’ second goal. “He’s kept us in so many games, and just to not show up and play that careless style, give them freebies all over the place.”

Still, most nights this season, Luukkonen would’ve stopped perhaps all four of those shots.

Did Granato considering yanking his ace earlier?

“You’re always in discussions to that,” he said. “Yeah, absolutely.”

When the first period ended with the Sabres down 5-0 and getting outshot 18-11 – Brady Tkachuk scored a four-on-four goal at 19:11 – many surly fans in the crowd 14,583 in KeyBank Center booed the home team off the ice.

Clifton said he “was pretty shocked” the Sabres displayed nothing early.

“They came in and they gave it to us and we had no answer,” he said.

Dahlin said after an early goal against, the Sabres “just got to keep doing the right things.”

“We were trying to come back quick by doing not good stuff,” he said.

If that happens, Luukkonen often bails them out. But the grind of the most demanding season of his career might be getting to him.

Having started 28 of the last 32 games, he might be worn out.

“The first one, for sure, snuck through him,” Granato said. “It’s tough. He’s made lots and lots of saves for us. So, it is something you’ll monitor and, obviously, based on the result tonight, you’ll have to consider that as a thought. ….

Devon came in and was very sharp. But lots of guys didn’t look like themselves. It’s a tough league when that happens and Upie was one of them.”

Winger JJ Peterka scored the Sabres’ first goal 2:54 into the second period, his team-leading 25th. Shane Pinto scored a late empty-net goal.

The Senators’ four goals in 8:49 were the fastest from the start of a game this season. They hadn’t scored five goals in a first period since Jan. 8, 2004.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *