Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen had a whirlwind one season.
The Buffalo Sabers goaltending prospect was assigned to the Rochester Americans during training camp and, after a shaky start to the season in Rochester, was recalled to the NHL in December due to a host of injuries to Buffalo goalies.
He performed well before sustaining an injury himself on January 11 that sidelined him for a month.
Now he’s back with the Amerks where he’s started seven of Rochester’s last 10 games.
The 6-foot-5, 217-pound native of Espoo, Finland is the first to admit this season hasn’t gone as exactly as he would have hoped, but there’s still time to finish on a good note.
“Injuries are always unfortunate, but I think coming back it’s fine,” he said. “The start of the season hasn’t been perfect for me either, but I’m starting to see an improvement, which I want to develop.”
Luukkonen played nine games with the Sabers at the end of last season for his first taste of NHL action. He earned his first victory in his first start on April 23 against Boston, but suffered a season-ending injury in his fourth game.
After two pre-season appearances this year, the front office decided that starting the year in Rochester would be good for his development.
Prior to his recall to Buffalo in early December, Luukkonen was 6-6 with a sub-.900 save percentage and struggled to find the consistency he showed as the OHL MVP with Sudbury. in 2018.
Amid those tough games, he earned his first AHL shutout on November 13 and was named AHL Player of the Week in large part because of that 32-save performance.
Video: [email protected]: Luukkonen spreads out over Scheifele
His nine starts for Buffalo this year have proven that the work he’s been doing at the AHL level is paying off.
He played much better than his 2-5-2 record indicated, allowing a minimum of 2.74 goals per game. He kept the Sabers in close, low-scoring battles with a .917 save percentage, highlighted by wins at Winnipeg and Minnesota.
When he was ready to return from his lower-body injury on Feb. 9, the team reassigned him to Rochester, where he gets the bulk of playing time.
“There’s always a feeling of doubt when you come back from injury,” he said earlier this week. “The most important thing for me was to get that confidence back, and I really think that’s what’s happening right now.”
Friday at Syracuse, Luukkonen and the Amerks survived the Crunch in overtime. Luukkonen stole the show, making a career-high 54 saves in a 2-1 overtime win. He came back with a 33-save performance in a 5-3 win over Toronto on Sunday.
The positives of posting a .956 save percentage over two games over the weekend (87 saves on 91 shots) is what he looks to build on, even if more tough games come up.
“In the game against Syracuse, the guys played really well in front of me,” Luukkonen said. “As a goalkeeper, when you face a lot of shots and keep making saves, it will always boost your confidence.”
Amerks coach Seth Appert applauded his goalie’s resilience to bounce back from a tough outing – a 5-1 loss on Feb. 20 – and have a dominating weekend.
“It’s really impressive for a young player to be able to do that and bounce back like he did last weekend. He’s a special player,” Appert said.
Luukkonen is also confident he’s ready both mentally and physically to make a return to Buffalo between the pipes before the end of the season.
“I would be lying if I said I didn’t want another shot at Buffalo,” he said. “I feel like I played well when I was there before the injury. I’m sure I’ll have the chance to play there soon.”
After last night’s 6-3 loss to the Crunch at home, the Amerks will regroup for two games this weekend. They will face Belleville on the road in back-to-back games Friday and Saturday.