By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
We first heard about Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen about two years ago. He had been a second-round draft choice of the Buffalo Sabres in 2017. After one more year in Finland, Luukkonen came across the ocean to play junior hockey in Sudbury in the Ontario Hockey League. He was sensational – easily the league’s best goalie with a 2.50 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage in 2018-19.
Ever since that season, it seemed as if Luukkonen was the team’s goalie of the future. It was just a matter of when.
And now we know. The future arrived on Friday night.
Luukkonen made his Sabre debut in the game against the Boston Bruins in the KeyBank Center. What’s more, he won it. His teammates made it interesting by jumping out to a 5-1 lead and then giving up three straight goals. But the Sabres hung on for the 6-4 victory on Fan Appreciation Night. UPL, as he’s often called in media stories, is now a member of the exclusive club of goaltenders with an NHL victory.
“You can’t decide how your career goes,” Luukkonen said. “There’s always going to be bumps in the road. I appreciate all the help I’ve had along the way.”
“I’m so happy for him,” Mattias Samuelsson added. “He’s an awesome guy. Playing in Rochester with him, I saw how talented he is and how hard he works. There will be a lot more (wins) to come.”
First shot, first goal
Luukkonen received a quick lesson in what play at hockey’s highest level can be like. The Bruins’ Steven Kampfer found the net at 2:15 of the first period, beating the netminder on the first shot he ever saw in the NHL.
At that point, UPL already wasn’t going to match Daren Puppa’s shutout in his first game as a Sabre. Puppa did that on November 1, 1985 against the Oilers in Edmonton – that is to say, the Gretzky-Messier-Kurri-Anderson-Coffey Oilers of that era. But Rule No. 1 for goalies, like football defensive backs, is they need to have a short memory.
“That wasn’t the way I imagined how the start would be,” Luukkonen said. “I thought we played really well as a team. We played a really solid game. You can’t think too much about those goals. It’s the NHL. There are good skaters. If they get a chance, they will score.”
That might have been a time to see some crumbling by the Sabres. Instead, they took some steps that served as a fix for a couple of the problems that were so evident in Thursday’s loss to the Bruins.
First, Boston didn’t even get a shot on goal for the next several minutes. The Buffalo defense blocked some attempts, and turned the game around. Admittedly, the Perfection Line of the Bruins was less than perfect because center Patrick Bergeron was sitting this game out because of injury. But it might not have mattered.
Besides, it’s tough to give up goals when the puck is in the other team’s zone. Buffalo had a 10-5 edge in shots for the first period.
“I loved our puck placement,” Granato said. “I’m not big on dumping the puck so I talk a lot about putting it ahead so we can pressure the opposition. I thought we did this in the whole game, and it was a key in the first period.”
That was capped by a power-play goal from Sam Reinhart, a welcome sight for Buffalo after going 0 for 11 with the extra man in the previous two games this week with Boston. The Sabres carried that momentum into the second period, as Rasmus Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt scored to make it a 3-1 lead. Then in the third, after Arttu Ruotsalainen and Reinhart (again on the power play) tallied to make it 5-1, it looked as if it would be a relaxing finish for all concerned. At one point, Luukkonen made 28 straight saves.
“I think we were coming back and stopping them in the slot,” Tage Thompson said. “Boston likes to use a lot of seam plays and cross-ice passes. A few bounces went their way on Thursday. It was our focus to pressure them. I think we did a good job of that tonight.”
Still finishing off the Bruins is never easy. They scored three goals in about five minutes to shrink the lead to 5-4 with 2:48 left. Two of the Boston goals were fluke deflections, but they still counted. But the Sabres didn’t lose their composure, and Reinhart finished off a hat trick to make it official.
“They felt in control of things because of the work ethic,” Granato said about his team’s attitude down the stretch. “We were able to set a tone and a pace. You always feel more confident when you can dictate a pace.”
The Sabres finally are done with the Bruins, at least at home. Now it’s time to take on the team that wants to catch Boston in the playoff race. Buffalo will play in New York against the Rangers on Sunday and Tuesday. In the meantime, though, UPL has a memory that will last a lifetime.
“It wasn’t the way I thought it would be, but it means a lot,” Luukkonen said in looking back at the contest.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)