BUFFALO – Think about it, when was the last time the Sabres had a true No. 1 goalie? Not a guy playing well and earning most of the action, but a top-flight NHL starter who could be entrenched in the crease for years.
Linus Ullmark might’ve become that guy if he had re-signed here. Robin Lehner enjoyed some success but battled personal issues. Others have seen their performance – remember how well Jonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth played? – get in the way of the Sabres’ grand plans.
Goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen’s recent emergence possibly gives the Sabres a massive piece they’ve been missing since they traded franchise goalie Ryan Miller 10 years ago this month: an undisputed No. 1 who ranks among the league’s best.
Right now, with rookie Devon Levi in the minors, the net belongs to Luukkonen. He’s expected to start this afternoon’s game against the St. Louis Blues at KeyBank Center, his ninth nod in the last 10 contests.
The sample size is still a bit small, mind you. But the Finn has performed dynamically since Dec. 30, compiling a 6-4-0 record with a 1.61 goals-against average, a .940 save percentage and two shutouts in 10 outings.
Entering Friday’s schedule, among goalies who had played at least five games during that stretch, his goals-against average and save percentage both ranked second behind the Edmonton Oilers’ Stuart Skinner.
Overall this season, Luukkonen has registered a 12-12-2 mark with a 2.58 goals-against average, a .910 save percentage and three shutouts in 27 games. His .837 high-danger save percentage ranks sixth in the league, according to NHL EDGE stats.
The trust Luukkonen, a youngster regarded as the Sabres’ goalie of the future before Levi’s acquisition, has earned from his coaches and teammates has helped his confidence balloon.
“You feel good about your game,” he told the Times Herald. “It’s easy to feed off of that and kind of build off the starts one after another.”
Luukkonen, of course, understands nothing is guaranteed. Starts will become less frequent if he falters. Success can be fleeting.
Four or five years ago, he was arguably hockey’s top goaltending prospect. But injuries and COVID-19 – he lost a lot of games in the minors – hampered his development as Levi’s arrival became highly anticipated.
“Guys that are successful, every single thing on the way up shapes them,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I think they use everywhere they went as an opportunity as a means to get better.”
Luukkonen said he wouldn’t “be person or the goalie I’m now if I didn’t go through that.”
A year ago at this time, in his first prolonged stint regularly starting games, Luukkonen had just won 12 of 15 starts, including eight of nine. Then he struggled down the stretch, never winning more than two straight games. After Levi left college and made his debut, he played just one of the final nine games.
“I feel like kind of just learning (to take nothing) for granted,” Luukkonen said. “It’s the best league in the world. We’re here to win games, and if you’re not part of working toward that, they will find somebody else to do it. So kind of playing in different leagues and playing in different spots you kind of learn that every day matters.”
This season, Luukkonen waited until the seventh game to play as the Sabres carried three goalies again and Levi and Eric Comrie shared the duties. But he outperformed them both as he earned games. In late November, he grabbed the starting job and the Sabres sent Levi to the Rochester Americans.
When Luukkonen got sick the next week, the Sabres recalled Levi. By late December, he had found a groove again, and they sent Levi to the AHL again Jan. 28.
Over the past six weeks, Luukkonen has looked in control, limiting his movement and utilizing his 6-foot-5, 217-pound frame to make difficult saves look easy. As a result, he has instilled confidence in his teammates.
“Maybe the fear of making a mistake is a little bit less,” Sabres center Casey Mittelstadt said. “You feel like he’s got your back, and there’s a good possibility he’s going to bail you out. So I think it helps us play with less fear and make those plays.”
Luukkonen and his teammates have also learned each other’s tendencies.
“We started the season, we were rolling three goalies … and you had different guy in the net every night, it’s hard for the players to kind of know what’s going on and kind of build the trust,” Luukkonen said. So that kind of has helped me, too. I find confidence from the players and vice versa.”
The NHL has announced Buffalo’s home game March 14 against the New York Islanders will now start at 7 p.m. instead of 7:30 p.m. and be televised on MSG.
Which young players do the #Bills need to take the next step, who could be candidates for salary cap casualties and whether the #Sabres have sealed their fate of missing the playoffs again. @BillHoppeNHL and I discuss. https://t.co/ueKA5pj9Y1
— Nick Sabato (@NickSabatoGNN) February 8, 2024