ROCHESTER – Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen’s season debut with the Americans started slowly.
In the opening 15 minutes of Friday’s 4-3 shootout loss, the Cleveland Monsters sprinkled only three shots on the Buffalo Sabres’ top goalie prospect.
“It’s tough for a goalie to get into it,” coach Chris Taylor said of Luukkonen, who started his season with the Cincinnati Cyclones after undergoing hip surgery.
In the second period, the Monsters caught fire, beating Luukkonen three times on 11 shots and grabbing a 3-2 lead.
Then Luukkonen, 20, settled down, helping the Amerks kill a two-man advantage in the third period and another penalty in overtime.
After that power play expired, Luukkonen stymied Andrew Peeke, lunging forward to stop the defenseman.
The crowd of 5,610 in Blue Cross Arena roared in approval of the game-saving stop.
But Markus Hannikainen sealed Cleveland’s win by roofing a backhander past a sprawling Luukkonen.
“He handled it very well, especially at the end of the game with the four-on-three, five-on-three, he did a really good job sticking with it,” Taylor said of Luukkonen. “Even with the overtime there, I thought he was good.”
Overall, Luukkonen, who was recalled from the ECHL on Sunday, made 24 saves in his second career American Hockey League outing.
“I feel like there’s some things I still have to sharpen up and there’s some things I’m happy about,” Luukkonen said.
So what will the Sabres do with the Finn now?
They play road games Saturday against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms and Sunday afternoon versus the Hershey Bears.
When the Sabres promoted Luukkonen, Amerks general manager Randy Sexton said they would keep him in Rochester for a week, something he repeated during the second intermission Friday.
“We’ll see how this weekend goes and go from there,” he said.
Sexton said the staff and coaches would decide following Friday’s game if Luukkonen, who’s scheduled to play in Wednesday’s ECHL All-Star Game, receives another start this weekend.
Luukkonen acclimated to the ECHL quickly, compiling a 12-5-3 record with a 2.12 goals-against average, a .917 save percentage and three shutouts in 20 games.
The Sabres mapped out a plan for months ago for Luukkonen to be in Rochester this week.
“We planned to have here a couple times here during the year as far back as the summer,” Sexton said.
Sexton said Luukkonen’s promotion has nothing to do with the play of Andrew Hammond or Jonas Johansson, the Amerks’ other goalies.
Despite some recent struggles – the Amerks have lost five consecutive games and nine of their last 12 – the goaltending has been strong most of the season. Johansson recently won nine straight games and was named an AHL All-Star. With Luukkonen up, the Amerks scratched Hammond.
“Whether JJ and Andrew had been lights out or if they had been playing OK or if they had been playing poorly, (Luukkonen) was coming this week, because that was the plan,” Sexton said.
Luukkonen clearly wanted two of the three goals he allowed Friday back.
He was screened on Ryan MacInnis’ goal.
“I have to see the puck more,” said Luukkonen, who was named the Ontario Hockey League’s MVP and top goalie with the Sudbury Wolves last season. “The play’s a lot faster here.”
After Trey Fix-Wolansky beat Luukkonen from the right circle, Kole Sherwood put Cleveland up 3-2, capitalizing following an odd bounce off end boards.
“Probably should have read that a little bit better,” Luukkonen said. “It was a little bit of an unfortunate bounce.”