BRAMPTON, Ont. – Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen sat in his hotel room Saturday frantically piecing together his game-day routine.
Luukkonen typically has every stretch and workout planned to the exact minute. However, on the morning of his first start in almost seven months, the Buffalo Sabres' goalie prospect awoke with no recollection of the regimen that helped him win gold for Finland at the IIHF World Junior Championship last January.
"I was a mess," Luukkonen joked after he stopped 25 of 28 shots for the ECHL's Cincinnati Cyclones in a 4-1 loss to the Brampton Beast at CAA Centre. Since undergoing double-hip surgery in April, the 20-year-old had thought daily about finally being physically able to compete in a game.
Luukkonen didn't allow himself to think about pregame warmups or stretches, though. He was consumed with an arduous physical rehabilitation that kept him off the ice until July and prevented him from being ready for the start of the Rochester Americans' season.
The wait is over. Luukkonen admittedly still thinks about the health of his hips, particularly during practice, but his second professional start in North America was a welcome return to normalcy.
"It’s a really nice moment," Luukkonen said. "I’m proud of myself."
Luukkonen eventually pieced together his routine. He took a few long strides out of the Zamboni entrance for pregame warmup, stickhandled a puck once he approached his blue line and circled around the net.
Luukkonen then proceeded to stretch near the Cyclones' penalty box and skated over to his spot in the crease. He faced a number of shots before giving way to Daniel Spence, Cincinnati's emergency backup goalie for the night.
Luukkonen appeared to be his usual composed self. In reality, he was nervous. All the on-ice workouts with Dennis Miller, the Sabres' head of rehab and development, and Seamus Kotyk, the organization's goaltending development coach, prepared Luukkonen to physically handle his return to game action.
The sharp pain that led to surgery is gone. He's moving well from post to post and remains the same controlled goaltender. However, Luukkonen hadn't played in a game since April 14, when he stopped 32 of 34 shots for Rochester to earn his first professional win. No practice or workout could prepare him for some of the chaos he faced Saturday.
"I was so nervous about going back on the ice and back into the games because in the end it’s so much different than practice situations," Luukkonen said. "Being in a new league, with a new team, all that combined, it’s a different situation than I’ve ever been in before. That built up some nervousness. Other than that, I was really excited. I'm just really happy to play games again."
That feeling didn't dissipate when Luukkonen stopped his first shot in the first period, an attempt by a Beast defenseman from the blue line. Or when he stopped a Brampton 2-on-1.
Luukkonen tracked the puck well throughout the first period and there was little he could have done to stop Daniel Leavens from redirecting a shot-pass into the net for a Brampton power-play goal at 6:52 into regulation.
It wasn't until the first intermission that Luukkonen felt "normal." The rehab wasn't on his mind. His focus was on helping his new teammates, many of whom he met only one day earlier, earn their fourth win of the season.
Luukkonen gave them a chance. He stopped a Brampton breakaway and ensuring rebound, only to have the Beast score on a third shot attempt to take a 2-1 lead late in the second period. Brampton pulled away when Lindsay Sparks skated alone across the slot to beat Luukkonen with a backhanded shot in the third period.
"I thought he was excellent," Kotyk, who watched Luukkonen's season debut from the press box, said. "I was really just impressed with his body strength and the control he had in his own game. From my standpoint, I was expecting him to be a little more choppy, a little more rusty because it’s so challenging to re-create game situations in practice and he’s been sharing a net while he’s in Rochester. … I was really pleased to see the small steps in his game, the growth. I walked away really happy and felt good with where he’s at."
This was an important step in the long road back from hip surgery, a procedure that has become common among goaltenders over the past 20 years because of the wear and tear caused by the butterfly style. Luukkonen didn't allow many rebounds and appeared controlled with his movements during Brampton's three power plays.
"Of course I’m still thinking about the hips and if they feel OK," Luukkonen said. "They do. That’s the nice thing about being in a game. In a practice you have time to think about that and you’re seeing how they feel. In your head you’re thinking if they’re tight or stuff like that, but in a game you don’t have time to think about your hips. You have to think about where the puck is and how you make the save."
The Sabres will be patient with Luukkonen. A conservative approach will ensure he is ready for the next step in his development, and he'll continue to hone his footwork and rebound control.
Those who have worked with Luukkonen closely aren't surprised by his resolute approach. Following a difficult world juniors one year earlier, Luukkonen posted a .932 save percentage in six games during Finland's run to the gold medal last winter.
Despite playing through pain following the tournament, Luukkonen was named the Ontario Hockey League's Most Valuable Player and top goaltender in May after winning a league-best 38 regular-season games, including six shutouts, for Sudbury. Neither the surgery nor the rehab has fazed Luukkonen. He's now considered as one of the top drafted goalie prospects in North America.
"That's one attribute of his game that jumps out the more you watch him. It’s not something you’ll notice if you just watch casually," Kotyk said of Luukkonen's will. "Very driven. Very goal-oriented. Understands what he wants and doesn’t allow anything to get in the middle of what his goal is. ... I find him very resilient. He bends but doesn’t break. It’s a massive component that’s going to allow him to take steps forward in his career."
Luukkonen was pleased, not satisfied with his performance. He said he'll never experience the latter, though. On a night when he achieved another career milestone, Luukkonen was disappointed with the Cyclones' loss. He credited the people who helped him return to the ice, including Miller and Kotyk.
The Sabres have yet to announce when Luukkonen will play his next game, although he was recalled to Rochester on Sunday, with Andrew Hammond making the trip to Sweden with the Sabres. Regardless of when his next start occurs, he won't have to piece together his game-day routine.
"I hate that we lost and we could have done better, including me, but I felt it was a good game," Luukkonen said. "I’m happy about my performance, even though we lost. Being out for that long, I felt pretty normal and good in the net."