BUFFALO – As the Sabres fought furiously for their first playoff berth in 12 years, goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen figured he’d be called upon for a critical late-season game.
Luukkonen, after all, led the team in wins as a rookie this season. He played 33 contests, emerging as the starter following his recall in mid-November. He performed so well the Sabres kept three goalies on the roster for nearly three months.
The Finn won huge games March 24 and April 1, keeping the Sabres’ playoff hopes alive. Those outings would be his final this season.
For a string of do-or-die games earlier this month, the Sabres utilized rookie Devon Levi, who made his NHL debut March 31. After they were eliminated last week, veteran Craig Anderson, as expected, made the final start of his decorated 20-year career. In a bit of a surprising move, Levi started Friday’s season finale.
Luukkonen, while clearly disappointed he did not play the final seven games, said he understands the Sabres’ decision to start Levi.
“You want to play as much as you can, but Devon played really, really well,” Luukkonen, 24, said Sunday as the Sabres held end-of-season meetings in KeyBank Center. “We played for a playoff spot and we kind of put ourselves in a position to play those meaningful games. So maybe that kind of makes it sometimes a little bit more frustrating because I felt like I was playing good, I felt like I was winning games. …
“Devon started really, really well. He played really good games so I see why the coaching staff wanted to ride that. I was just happy of being part of that. It’s a really, really good team to play for. So I’m just happy to kind of still be around, still be part of the team, putting the work and do as much as I can and be ready if there was going to be a start. But I think overall, (I’m) just happy how well we did as a team this year.”
In watching Levi, 21, earn the Sabres’ trust just a few weeks out of college, Luukkonen said he realized “that I need to be better, too.”
Overall, Luukkonen compiled a 17-11-4 record with a 3.61 goals-against average and an .891 save percentage with this Sabres this season. In 12 games after Feb. 1, he registered a 4-6-2 mark with a 4.22 goals-against average and an .876 save percentage, numbers that illustrate why the Sabres went with Levi.
In his first seven NHL games, Levi compiled a 5-2-0 record with a 2.94 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage.
Levi possibly has the inside track to be the Sabres’ starter next season. The youngster’s arrival, however, hasn’t soured Luukkonen on his future in Buffalo.
“I, of course, want to play for this team and be back here and get better this summer and … be the difference next year,” he said.
Having grabbed the No. 1 job from Eric Comrie after the newcomer suffered an MCL injury, Luukkonen has a unique perspective. He won eight out of nine games in December and January, including six straight.
Not long ago, he was the hot hand the Sabres kept turning to most games.
“Devon came in, he played well here, he showed that he’s an NHL goalie,” Luukkonen said. “I had a winning streak … so I was in the same similar spot. When you’re feeling good, it’s a good spot to be in when you know that you can be the difference and win those games.
“But it kind of gave me that perspective of what the coaching decisions are and were.”
The 6-foot-5, 217-pound Luukkonen tried to embrace some difficult situations this season. Carrying three goalies is unusual, especially for nearly half the campaign.
“It is challenging and it’s not the optimal situation,” he said.
Still, Luukkonen tried to make the most of it.
“I’ve said many times this year that all the four goalies we had, Andy, Coms and Devon, they’re all really, really good guys and there’s something I can learn from every one of them,” he said.
In tough times, Anderson, 41, was quick to lend some advice to Luukkonen.
“Just with his experiences, he’s been through all that, he’s seen it, he’s done it,” Luukkonen said. “It’s kind of putting things into perspective. I wasn’t here from the start of the year, but I felt like this was my first year in the NHL and kind of sometimes when he saw that I’m a little bit down or at the end of the year, he just, he came to me and told me that it’s no reason to be down. Just show up, work as hard as you can and when you get your chance, you have to take it.
“There’s the ups and downs of being a goalie and there never is a perfect situation anywhere.”
Americans rookie forward Jiri Kulich suffered a lower-body injury in Saturday’s 4-3 loss to the Cleveland Monsters, coach Seth Appert told reporters in Rochester.
The Sabres prospect missed Sunday’s 4-1 win in Cleveland, which clinched the No. 3 seed in AHL North Division for the Calder Cup Playoffs.
The Amerks open a best-of-five series Friday on the road against the Syracuse Crunch.
Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams and coach Don Granato will hold their end-of-season news conference Wednesday instead of Monday.