Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen earns second straight shutout in 3-0 win


Staff member

Head coach Don Granato wasn’t sure what to expect from his players Thursday night.

Aside from a few brief morning skates, the Buffalo Sabres hadn’t practiced in a week because of a busy homestand and consecutive winter storms that brought heavy, lake-effect snow to Western New York.

Granato and his staff put them through a rigorous skate hours before puck drop against the Chicago Blackhawks to try to account for the practice repetitions the Sabres missed.

The unusual week did not cause the Sabres to sleepwalk through the first period Thursday night in KeyBank Center. And though Granato wasn’t satisfied with everything he saw against the Blackhawks, the Sabres backed their goalie, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, with two goals in the third period to pull away for a 3-0 win.

"We’re playing with mojo right now," said Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin. "We’re not afraid to make plays. We back up each other if someone makes a mistake. So, we’re playing a good team game right now. We’re calm with the puck and making the right plays."

Zemgus Girgensons, JJ Peterka and Dahlin had a goal apiece to back Luukkonen, who made 19 saves to earn a second consecutive shutout. His 157:44 shutout streak dating to Saturday against Vancouver is second-longest in the NHL this season and the longest by a Sabres goalie since Ryan Miller didn't allow a goal for 161:35 from Nov. 27 to Dec. 7, 2010.

Luukkonen wasn’t tested often. The Blackhawks (13-30-2) had only 11 shots on goal in the first and third periods. But Luukkonen made timely stops while showing the coaching staff that it was wise to start him for a fourth consecutive game. His back-to-back shutouts are the first by a Sabres goalie since Carter Hutton accomplished the feat in October 2019.

"It feels great," said Luukkonen. "Especially there’s been a lot of talk about our defensive play since last season and we’ve shown how tight we can play. As I said after last game too, it’s not about me. It’s about the team. It doesn’t happen if they don’t block shots, box out and do that. We played a good game tonight and it showed on the scoreboard."

This was the type of performance the Sabres needed against the worst team in the NHL. They outshot the Blackhawks, 13-4, in the first period, earned 25 more shot attempts (32-7) and, according to Natural Stat Trick, generated 14 scoring chances. Buffalo finished with 31 shots on goal and 27 scoring chances.

Yet it was 0-0 until 12:27 into the second period when Girgensons tipped a shot past Blackhawks goalie Arvid Soderblom. The Sabres have scored the first goal in six of their last seven games, reversing a trend that caused them to plummet in the standings. Then, they killed three penalties before Peterka doubled their lead to 2-0 with a shot from behind the goal line that went off Soderblom’s mask and in.

"Sometimes you’ve just got to stick with it," said Girgensons. "I thought we played the right way, kept getting chances and eventually one popped in."
Tensions rose in third period when Blackhawks forward Philipp Kurashev injured Sabres defenseman Erik Johnson with a dangerous hit from behind, but Buffalo quickly took advantage with Dahlin’s power-play goal.

Luukkonen took care of the rest. The Sabres’ recent No. 1 goalie made challenging saves on Lukas Reichel and Reese Johnson in the latter portion of the third period to ensure his shutout streak would reach consecutive games.

The Sabres couldn't afford to lose their past two games. The Sharks and Blackhawks are the worst teams in the league. But their play in January, particularly the improved team defense shown in front of Luukkonen, is an important step for Buffalo in its quest to make the challenging climb in the standings.

"I feel great," said Luukkonen, who is 5-1 with a .959 save percentage in his last six starts. "It’s a great opportunity to play more now and it builds up your confidence. Not even necessarily shutouts but having good games in a row gives you a good flow to your game. Overall, it’s a good feeling."
Here are other observations from the game:

1. 'Very direct'

Some fans criticized the Sabres’ lineup when reporters shared the forward groupings during the morning skate Thursday.

They didn’t understand why Granato would slot Girgensons next to skilled linemates like Casey Mittelstadt and Jack Quinn. Hours later, though, Girgensons scored a goal that illustrated why Granato made the change. The Sabres tend to overcomplicate plays in the offensive zone. We saw the trend continue in the first period against the Blackhawks. So, Granato chose to have a forward on each line that plays a hard, direct game. Girgensons, for example, makes an impact on the forecheck and gets to the front of the net. He did the latter when he tipped Ryan Johnson’s shot for the first goal.

Girgensons had five shots on goal, only one behind Dahlin for the team lead Thursday, and had a role on the Sabres’ penalty kill, which is 12-for-12 over the past four games.

"He plays very direct and we wanted that today," Granato said of Girgensons. "We’ve missed that directness with each line. You’re missing pieces that are chemistry on lines and I wanted to make sure we didn’t compromise playing the way we needed to play, which was direct and hard."

2. Special teams

The stat lines for the Sabres’ core players are a cause for concern, but it’s important to point out that 5-on-5 scoring isn’t the team’s issue this season.

Their 96 goals at 5-on-5 through 45 games ranked seventh in the NHL entering Thursday, which is only three fewer than they had through 45 games last season. The drop-off in total production, from 3.57 goals per game to 2.95, is caused by their struggling power play, which went 1-for-6 against the Blackhawks’ struggling penalty kill.

The Sabres are trying a different structure on the power play. Alex Tuch was near the right side of the blue line to support Dahlin and provide a different look for the top unit Thursday.

3. Fine first

Searching for the perfect play cost the Sabres in the first period.

They overpassed at times, particularly during their two unsuccessful power plays, and took too long to have traffic in front of Soderblom. Somehow, Chicago could have led at the intermission because most of its four shots on goal in the first period forced Luukkonen to make challenging saves. He stopped Seth Jones from the slot, MacKenzie Entwistle’s shot from the right circle during a partial breakaway and a backdoor chance for Reichel when the Sabres made a mistake in coverage.

4. Next

The Sabres complete the homestand against the Tampa Bay Lightning at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.