One lesson Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has learned during his introduction to the Ontario Hockey League: You need to be ready for anything.
Luukkonen and his Sudbury Wolves were already trailing 2-0 on Sunday when he found himself face-to-face with Kitchener Rangers forward Rickard Hugg, sent in alone on a breakaway. With little time to react, the 6-foot-5 goaltender stayed patient as Hugg flipped the puck to his backhand, then quickly dropped to the butterfly to make the pad save.
The save proved to be a turning point. The Wolves scored their first goal less than three minutes later, added another before the end of the period and broke the 2-2 tie in overtime.
"There's lots more bounces," Luukkonen said over the phone on Tuesday. "You never know what's going to happen. You have to be ready all the time. I think that's something you learn in pro hockey, that you have to be ready for all 60 minutes."
It's hard to imagine a better start to Luukkonen's junior career than the one that's transpired in Sudbury: wins in his first five starts, including a trio of road victories that earned him OHL Player of the Week honors. He made 99 saves in those games, good for a .952 save percentage.
Luukkonen ranks third in the OHL with a 1.78 GAA and fourth with a .944 save percentage. The number he's proudest of, however, is the 12 sitting next to Sudbury's name in the point column, good for first in the league.
"Of course, it's surprising. I didn't expect it," Luukkonen said of his scorching start. "But we have a good team and our team has been playing really well. It's easy to play behind those guys. So yeah, it's been a great start for the whole team. Maybe there's some guys who are surprised by it, but when we play like this, it's no surprise."
Sudbury selected Luukkonen third overall in the CHL Import Draft in June, prompting the goaltender to make a decision on his future. He could continue his career in Finland, where he played his first pro season a year ago, or make his first venture to North America.
The decision to play in Sudbury was made with input from the Sabres and HPK, his club in Finland, who agreed that playing No. 1 minutes would be the best course for his development.
With that decision comes change: new teammates and a new style of play, not to mention a new country. After living on his own in Finland for two years, having the support of a billet family has eased the transition.
"It's smaller than I thought," Luukkonen said of his new home. "It makes it easier when you have your billets and you live with a family. It's just one thing less to worry about it. It makes playing easier.'
Making big saves doesn't hurt, either.
"Especially when you're with a new team and new environment, you have to prove yourself a little," he said. "It helps to make big saves and help the team win."
Pekar's strong start
Luukkonen isn't the only Sabres prospect making a splash in the OHL. Matej Pekar (fourth round, 2018) is tied for ninth in the league with 10 points (5+5) in his first seven games playing under Dale Hawerchuk with the Barrie Colts.
Pekar tallied points in his first six games before being held off the board in a 4-2 win at Kingston on Sunday. It's a promising start for the forward, who opted to play junior hockey in favor of beginning his collegiate career at Miami (Ohio).
"I went there for a visit and I was kind of still on the edge, I didn't know what to decide," Pekar said during the Prospects Challenge. "I just kind of realized that I want to focus on hockey, I want to face the best players I can and get pushed right now … That should help me develop into hopefully an NHL player."
Pekar and Luukkonen will square off when Barrie visits Sudbury on Friday night.
Laaksonen playing top minutes
After getting his first taste of Liiga action last season, defenseman Oskari Laaksonen (third round, 2017) has been playing on Ilves' top pair en route to a 7-3-1 start.
Laaksonen ranks third on the team with six points (1+5). He scored his first career goal with a point shot through traffic on the power play in a 6-2 win on Sept. 21.
Laaksonen's average ice time of 19:01 ranks third on the team, second amongst defensemen.
Back to school
College hockey will be in full swing this weekend, including a series between Boston College and Wisconsin that will pit Sabres prospects Christopher Brown (sixth round, 2014) and Casey Fitzgerald (third round, 2016) against Linus Weissbach (seventh round, 2017).
Brown is coming off a two-goal performance in B.C.'s exhibition win over New Brunswick on Saturday, in which Fitzgerald tallied an assist. Weissbach scored a goal and an assist in Wisconsin's exhibition win over Victoria on Sunday.
The Eagles and Badgers will meet in Wisconsin on Friday and Saturday, with both games set to begin at 8 p.m.