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Luukkonen acclimating to Sabres with debut approaching

Goaltender spent his 1st game on an NHL bench Tuesday

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen spent his first game on an NHL bench Tuesday, watching while his countryman Tuukka Rask posted a 32-save shutout against the Sabres. 

Luukkonen paid close attention to the intricacies of the game - the pace, the habits of both Rask and Sabres goaltender Dustin Tokarski - knowing he might find himself in the crease sooner rather than later. His NHL debut could come as soon as Thursday, though no plan has been announced.

"As long as I'm skating with the team and in the lineup and all that, I have to be ready," Luukkonen said. 

Sabres interim coach Don Granato said he would inform his goaltenders on Thursday regarding the team's plans for back-to-back games against the Bruins. If Tokarski gets the nod in the first game, it stands to reason that Luukkonen could make his debut Friday. 

Video: PRACTICE REPORT

Luukkonen was reassigned to the taxi squad from Rochester on Saturday in the wake of an injury to Linus Ullmark, who is considered week-to-week. Granato said the team wanted to give him time with the NHL club before thrusting him into the lineup, allowing Tokarski to start the last four games. 

Luukkonen participated in Buffalo's morning skate prior to backing up Tokarski on Tuesday and followed it with a full practice on Wednesday. Granato said the team is prepping him on the details of the system, from where to expect shots to defensive pressure points. 

"Those are things you just want to make sure he has a feel for," Granato said. "Just obvious preparation for him. But when the game's on, it's a read-and-react (situation). So, he's on his own in that to internalize all that. That's why he's a talented guy. He'll figure it out in due time." 

The Sabres drafted Luukkonen during the second round in 2017. He spent a year in Finland before coming to North America and turning heads with a dominant, MVP season for Sudbury of the Ontario Hockey League in 2018-19. He won a gold medal at the World Junior Championship that same year. 

The organization has been patient with his pro development during the two years since. Luukkonen spent the majority of his first pro season with ECHL Cincinnati, where he was selected to the All-Star Game. He assumed No. 1 duties in Rochester this season with Tokarski spending much of his time in Buffalo. 

Tokarski said Luukkonen has the tools to develop into an elite goaltender, citing intangibles beyond the 22-year-old's 6-foot-4 frame.

"First of all, as a young, top prospect coming in, just to be humble and work so hard," Tokarski said. "When I was in Roch with him, there was a lot of practices, obviously, with the long training camp there. Just every day putting in the reps, not complaining. 

"Obviously, it's no secret he's got the talent to be elite, he's shown it throughout his whole young career. So, I think when you put the talent in with the work ethic and being humble I think can go a long way."

Whether it comes Thursday, Friday, or beyond, Granato has been open about the team's plans to reward Luukkonen with a look at the NHL level this season. 

"I'm excited to see him with this opportunity coming for him," Granato said. "He's worked hard for it. I have watched that and have seen that so I'm looking forward to him being in there."

 

Tokarski "honored" by First Star of the Week 

Tokarski was selected as the NHL's First Star of the Week on Monday, earning recognition for a stretch that saw the goaltender win two of four appearances while posting a .934 save percentage.

New York Rangers left wing Artemi Panarin and Vegas right wing Mark Stone were named Second and Third Stars, respectively. 

"I was surprised," Tokarski said. "I was honored. It was an off day, so I was just excited. But the guys played unbelievable to even give me a chance to be in the bracket. I saw the other guys who had huge weeks, so it could've been any of them, too. 

"So, yeah, other guys had some huge weeks, so it's just an honor to be in that grouping. It's pretty cool, for sure, to look back on it down the road, to say you had that honor that week will pretty cool."

Video: AFTER PRACTICE: Tokarski

The recognition was particularly meaningful given Tokarski's journey to Buffalo. He had not played in the NHL since 2016 before making his Sabres debut on March 22. His win over Washington on April 15 was his first in the NHL since Dec. 12, 2015 - a span of five years and 124 days. It was the 16th-longest wait between wins by a goaltender in NHL history.

"It's just the belief in that if do the right things, you put in the work that good things will come of it," Tokarski said. "You never know if the opportunity will come in different scenarios. But at least if you're doing what you can, controlling what you can, you'll have no regrets. You get lackadaisical and take time off and kind of put it on yourself, you'll just never know. 

"So, when the opportunity came this year, I was happy to feel that I did belong and I can play. The credit goes to family, friends, trainers, coaches that have just kept believing in me along the way. It's been a good month here, but it's what have you done lately? So, I look forward to just continuously working hard and helping the Buffalo Sabres, just going day to day doing that."

 

Wednesday's practice

William Borgen skated with the team for the second straight day and is probable to play one - if not both - of the games against Boston, Granato said. Borgen has been out since having surgery to repair a fracture in his right arm in February. 

Here's how the team lined up:

53 Jeff Skinner - 23 Sam Reinhart - 68 Victor Olofsson
74 Rasmus Asplund - 37 Casey Mittelstadt - 72 Tage Thompson
96 Anders Bjork - 24 Dylan Cozens - 25 Arttu Ruotsalainen
13 Tobias Rieder - 15 Riley Sheahan - 91 Drake Caggiula

54 Mattias Samuelsson - 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
26 Rasmus Dahlin - 10 Henri Jokiharju
78 Jacob Bryson - 33 Colin Miller
44 Matt Irwin - 3 William Borgen

31 Dustin Tokarski
1 Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen
34 Michael Houser
 

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