BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen made 24 saves in his first career shutout, and the the Sabres beat the Colorado Avalanche in front a crowd of 15,717 at KeyBank Center on Sunday, improving to 12-1-1 when wearing throwback “goat head’ uniforms over the past year.
The shutout victory against one of the NHL’s best teams was Buffalo’s most impressive performance in starting the season 4-5-0. JJ Peterka, Casey Mittelstadt, Tyson Jost, and Rasmus Dahlin scored for the Sabres, and Jeff Skinner had two assists to keep pace with Dahlin for the team lead with nine points in nine games. Dahlin’s empty-net goal from the far corner of the ice extended his career-best point streak to eight games, the longest by a Sabres defenseman in 33 years.
“Hopefully it’s a revelation for our guys,” coach Don Granato said, “something that they can feed off of and move forward on now.”
UPL steps up
With lower-body injuries keeping both Devon Levi and Eric Comrie out of the net, Luukkonen got his second start of the season, and his second win.
The 24-year-old Luukkonnen was locked in for the Sabres’ first afternoon game, making several stops from close range in the opening minutes. And the Sabres gained momentum when Luukkonnen glove saved a high-grade scoring chance by Colorado’s Miko Rantanen to midway through the first period.
“For him to keep them off the scoreboard until we could get our legs under us and find our rhythm was everything,” Granato said. “You don’t want to give that team confidence, and he denied that with some early action against him.”
Peterka scored his fourth of the season, set up by Skinner’s drive to the net, about a minute later.
Seven of Luukkonen’s saves came on six Avalanche power plays, as the Sabres penalty kill improved to 89% (33 for 37) this season.
“He had a lot big saves tonight. Big momentum swings for us,” said Tage Thompson, who tallied his fifth point in three games by winning a face-off in the defensive zone before Dahlin’s goal. “We felt really comfortable with him in net. He was square to every shot, controlling rebounds. I thought he looked really good. When you got a goalie back there that’s dialed in, it just gives you that comfort in your D-zone and allows you to be a little more aggressive.”
Comrie is week-to-week with his injury sustained in Friday night’s loss at New Jersey. Levi has missed the past five games, but is expected to practice Tuesday and could return for the following night’s game in Philadelphia. The Sabres called up Devin Cooley to be the backup Sunday, but returned him to Rochester after the game.
Luukkonen, who fell out of favor last season, earned more confidence with the shutout, after he allowed four goals in his first start, and three in relief against the Devils, boosting the Sabres’ belief in their goalie rotation.
“It feels great especially now when it’s only my second start of the second and maybe in Ottawa the numbers didn’t reflect how good I felt in that game,” Luukkonen said. “It’s really a confidence booster for me and I’ve been waiting for a long time.”
Erik Johnson, the veteran defenseman signed by the Sabres this offseason after playing the past 13 seasons in Colorado, dined Saturday night with a dozen former teammates he won the Stanley Cup with in 2022.
After the Avalanche lost for the first time in six trips to Buffalo, it was noted by Johnson how beating one of the NHL’s better teams can help the Sabres find a more consistent level of play.
“That’s a good measuring stick for us,” Johnson said. “That’s a team that knows how to win, that’s won, and it’s one of the top teams in the league. So regardless of who we played, we needed to have a game like that but to have it against a team like that, it’s a new standard for us and it’s got to be continued on.”
The shutout loss was Colorado’s second in a row after starting the season 6-0-0 and winning 15 consecutive road games since March, breaking an NHL record that was held by the 2006-07 Sabres.
Jost, who played five seasons with Colorado after getting drafted 10th overall in 2016, scored for the second time in six games against his former team, and first in three meetings since Buffalo claimed him off waivers from Minnesota a year ago. Alex Tuch tallied his fourth point in three games with a backhand feed setting up Jost for his first goal of the season, which made it 3-0 at 8:16 into the second period.
Expect the Avalanche to be eager for the Sabres visit to Colorado on Dec. 18. They were agitated by a play in the second period that sent All-Star defenseman Cale Makar sliding into the end boards. Makar was down on the ice for a few minutes before limping to the dressing room, but he returned in the third period.
Losing his balance while skating toward the net, Makar was nudged by Kyle Okposo while falling, and Makar’s right leg bent underneath his body as he crashed into the boards.
Avalanche coach Jared Bednar called it a dangerous play by Okposo. “Both guys skate toward the end boards, it looks to me like he gets him on the hips just above the goal line,” he said, “which you know, you’re going straight in with two guys, I just don’t think you can hit him there.
There was no penalty on the play, and soon after, Colorado’s top center Nathan MacKinnon received 2-minute unsportsmanlike and 10-minute misconduct penalties for arguing with officials.
Makar did not complain about the hit postgame, but Avalanche defenseman Josh Manson surely mentioned it when he got in Okposo’s face after the final whistle.
Jonah Bronstein joined the WIVB squad in 2022 as a digital sports reporter. The Buffalonian has covered the Bills, Sabres, Bandits, Bisons, colleges, high schools and other notable sporting events in Western New York since 2005, for publications including The Associated Press, The Buffalo News, and Niagara Gazette. Read more of his work here.