Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen described his situation with the Buffalo Sabres early this season as far from optimal. He came into the season third on the team’s goalie depth chart and watched rookie Devon Levi start the Sabres’ first four games. When Levi came out of his fourth start with a lower-body injury, Eric Comrie got the first chance to start and played two straight games before Luukkonen got a shot to play on the second half of a back-to-back.
Luukkonen won that start and stopped 34 of 38 shots but was right back on the bench to start Buffalo’s next game against the New Jersey Devils. Only when Comrie left that game with a lower-body injury did Luukkonen get another chance to play. He didn’t finish particularly strong in that game, a 5-4 loss for Buffalo. But he came back Sunday and shut out the Colorado Avalanche with a 23-save performance. He then bailed the Sabres out on multiple occasions with a 38-save performance in a 5-2 win against the Philadelphia Flyers in Wells Fargo Center.
Just how important was Luukkonen to the result of this game? Well, the score was tied 2-2 entering the third period. The Flyers outshot the Sabres 20-4 in the third period, but Luukkonen stopped everything, and the Sabres got a three-goal win.
“He stood tall back there for us and was a huge reason for us coming out with the win,” defenseman Owen Power told reporters.
The Sabres entered the season with a three-goalie rotation, which is not ideal for any one goalie. Luukkonen had to wait longer than the other two to get in the net, but he is making the most of every chance. He’s won all three games that he’s started and has a .926 save percentage and an .871 save percentage on high-danger chances, according to Natural Stat Trick.
“It’s as simple as working hard,” Sabres defenseman Henri Jokiharju said earlier this week. “That’s what he always does. He just stays patient and stays humble all the time. He doesn’t take anything for granted. That’s probably what describes him the best.”
This win against the Flyers did not start how Luukkonen wanted it to. Less than a minute into the game, a Flyers crossing pass ricocheted off Jokiharju and knuckled over Luukkonen’s shoulder. At the end of the first period, a Flyers pass sneaked through Sabres defenseman Jacob Bryson, and Cam Atkinson was able to redirect it by Luukkonen.
Luukkonen locked it down from there, and the Sabres needed him to. The Flyers outshot the Sabres 40-15 in this game. After the first period, the Flyers had a 30-8 advantage in shots and a 22-8 advantage in scoring chances, according to Natural Stat Trick.
With 13:34 to go in the third period, the Sabres were leading 3-2. Peyton Krebs made a careless pass in the offensive zone that started a footrace the other way. Scott Laughton outmuscled Power for the puck and created a two-on-none for the Flyers. He slid the puck to Garnet Hathaway, and Luukkonen slid over to make a left-pad save. A few minutes later, Luukkonen stopped Tyson Foerster on a one-timer that came from right between the faceoff circles.
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Then the Flyers got another point-blank chance minutes later, but Jokiharju dove to block the shot and keep it out of the net. The Sabres had 19 blocked shots in this game, including five from Jokiharju and three from Mattias Samuelsson. Buffalo needed a gutsy effort from its top five defensemen because Bryson played only 8:23 in this game and didn’t see the ice much after his mistake on Philadelphia’s second goal.
Ugly as it might have been at times, the Sabres got two points to get back to .500 for the first time this season. They’re 5-5 and have won consecutive games for the first time all season. More importantly, their 24-year-old goalie showed he’s capable of stealing a game, which is exactly what his team needed.
“You have to fight for your spot every day,” Luukkonen said after the game. “It doesn’t matter what the situation is. In the end, I’m happy that we’re winning as a team.”
1. The last time Brandon Biro was wearing a Buffalo Sabres jersey, he was covered in blood. In the second-to-last preseason game this season, Biro took a shot off the face and needed stitches on the inside and outside of his lip. Once he got stitched up, he had a full shield fastened to his helmet and returned to the game to try to earn a roster spot. He got sent down to AHL Rochester, but Biro was the first name the Sabres called when they needed to bring someone up to the NHL. And in his first game since the call-up, Biro scored twice, starting with the Sabres’ second goal of the game and finishing it off with an empty-netter. On his first goal, he crashed the net and got a pass from Tage Thompson. He scored while falling face-first toward the net.
“He knew how you could score that goal, how he could get that puck in the net. It was a little bit unconventional but creative and evident of a high hockey IQ,” Don Granato said.
The Sabres have worked a lot of different line combinations early in the season. Part of that has been an effort to find combinations that give them depth throughout the lineup. Zach Benson was providing a spark early in the season, and now Biro has a chance to do the same. Biro only had 9:10 of ice in this game but made the most of it.
2. Thompson took a few games to get going, but the Sabres’ top scorer is back in form. Early in the season, it seemed like Thompson was having games in which he was shooting a bunch but not getting much puck luck. Against the Flyers, Thompson had only one shot on net, but it went in to give the Sabres a two-goal lead in the third period. He also drove the play through the neutral zone to set up Power for what would be the game-winning goal. He was on the ice for three of Buffalo’s goals and not a single goal against.
3. J.J. Peterka has quietly put together a three-game point streak for the Sabres and has four goals and an assist through 10 games this season. The assist came on the Sabres’ first goal of this game when he fed Casey Mittelstadt on a give-and-go. Getting to play on a line with Mittelstadt has been a boost for Peterka’s production, and he could be in the early stages of a breakout season.
(Photo of Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)