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Hamilton: Luukkonen is part of the future for the Sabres

Buffalo's top goalie prospect, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, helped the Sabres beat the Bruins 6-4 Friday night in his NHL debut.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — I think the Sabres are right to have high hopes for Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. Ever since they drafted him in the second round of the 2017 Draft, he’s been thought of as the future in goal for this team.

Linus Ullmark took six years to develop into a No. 1 goalie in this league after he was taken in the sixth round of the 2012 Draft. Buffalo’s other goaltending prospect is 2019 third-round pick Erik Portillo, who will enter his sophomore season at Michigan in September.

Buffalo had drafted another excellent prospect in the fifth round of the 2013 Draft in Cal Petersen, but after his third season at Notre Dame, he snubbed the Sabres, became an unrestricted free agent, and signed with the Los Angeles Kings. Overall, he’s a better goalie than Ullmark in his 45 NHL games. 

Getting back to Luukkonen, he’s had a tough go of it in Rochester this season, but Buffalo was also developing him by tweaking some of his techniques.

Due to injuries, Luukkonen got his first NHL start on Friday, and he showed all his hard work is paying off.

For me the first thing that impressed was his mental toughness. In the first period, the Sabres made very few mistakes, but they made a bad one just 2 minutes, 15 seconds in, and the first shot the kid ever faced in the National Hockey League was in the net.

After that he had to stand there for almost eight minutes on the clock before he finally saw another shot, which he stopped.

In the third period, the Sabres had a 5-1 lead and were playing very well in all three zones. Luukkonen left very few rebounds in this game, but there was a small rebound that wound up in, but things were still comfortable at 5-2, right?

Wrong, Boston scored two goals that deflected in off of Rasmus Ristolainen, and now the score was 5-4 with 2:48 left.

Luukkonen didn’t panic, and he made two more saves before Sam Reinhart scored into the empty net to seal the big goalie’s first NHL win.

Luukkonen did a good job of getting out on top of his crease and challenging the shooters.  He also showed good quickness inside his crease as he followed the puck.

Credit: AP
Buffalo Sabres goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen makes a save during the first period of the team's NHL hockey game against the Boston Bruins, Friday, April 23, 2021, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Luukkonen admitted that he didn’t get comfortable until the second period. I’m guessing a save he made on Mike Reilly in the slot helped settle him down, although he said he won’t be totally comfortable with the speed of the NHL for a few more games.

Since Carter Hutton isn’t even back practicing, you would think Luukkonen is going to get a few more chances at this level.

What needs to be figured out now is can he be counted on next season in the NHL. If Ullmark leaves in unrestricted free agency, is this 22-year-old ready to take over?

Jake Oettinger of the Dallas Stars is from Luukkonen’s draft class, but he was a first-round pick taken 26th overall. Oettinger is sharing the Stars' goaltending duties with Anton Khudobin, playing 24 games with a 9-6-6 record, 2.23 goals against and .916 save percentage.

Boston’s Jeremy Swayman is also from this draft year.

It’s going to be a close call, and I think the Sabres need to get him in net more before the season ends so Adams has an idea of what he has going into the offseason.

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