Devon Levi’s back was at center ice as he stood in his net as the crowd inside KeyBank Center serenaded the rookie in his highly anticipated NHL debut.
“Levi, Levi, Levi!”
The chant was in response to a brilliant save that showcased the exceptional talent that made Levi one of the greatest goaltenders in NCAA men’s hockey history. He followed the puck right to left on a New York Rangers cross pass and slid in to make a big one-time save by Kaapo Kakko to keep the Buffalo Sabers’ lead going into the second quarter Friday night.
“It was quite an incredible save,” defender Mattias Samuelsson marveled.
The crowd roared. Levi’s family and friends celebrated. This was the kind of moment he envisioned long before his trade to the Sabers in July 2021 or his record-setting performance at the IIHF World Junior Championship.
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Showcasing the precise technique that earned him the crease just weeks after leaving Northeastern University to turn pro, Levi made an all-star debut filled with crucial saves and Jeff Skinner scored in overtime to give the Sabers a 3-game win. 2.
“It was a dream come true,” Levi smiled. “I’ve dreamed of that moment my whole life.”
The fourth-youngest goaltender to debut for the Sabres, Levi made 31 saves, including 19 during a dramatic third period, and none of the Rangers’ goals beat him clean.
Kakko scored by hitting the puck out of the air as it was leaping over Levi, then Adam Fox tied it with 10:15 remaining in the third quarter by pushing a loose puck over the line. Levi kept the score tied with four saves during a Rangers power play, then denied Artemi Panarin, who slotted the puck with 1:28 remaining.
“It’s unreal,” Levi said of his debut matchup against the New York Rangers. “I wouldn’t want it any other way. Facing the best is what I’m here for, what I’m excited about. It will be a big challenge tomorrow. I’m looking forward to it.”
Skinner scored his 32nd goal of the season 1:49 after overtime to send the Sabers (36-31-7) to their fifth win in 16 games, moving them within five points of the Pittsburgh Penguins for the final wild-card spot. in the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.
“The NHL is hockey,” Levi said before handing the game puck to his father, Laurent. “It’s just the game of hockey. It’s the game I’ve been playing my whole life. There are a lot of good players, but it’s been my dream to be challenged by the best and finally here. I have a right shot now.”
Bolstered by Samuelsson’s return from injury, the Sabers seemed determined to make this a night to remember for Levi. They took an early lead on JJ Peterka’s goal, added safety with Jordan Greenway beating Jaroslav Halak in the second period, and battled back to earn two points despite losing Tage Thompson to injury for the second straight game.
The night started in an unexpected way for Levi. He didn’t wear a helmet for his solo return at the start of pregame warmups, firing two pucks into the net before his teammates joined him on the ice. His aggressive play early on gave Levi enough time to adjust to the Rangers’ speed and the buzz of a crowd close to his capacity.
“This is playoff time for us,” Sabers coach Don Granato said. “We needed to fight and fight and find a way to win. We had to find a way to win tonight with a good save to finish and a good play to finish… We had to keep hunting. Credit to our guys for scoring.” .
The Sabers outshot the Rangers 12-2 through the first 20 minutes and took a 1-0 lead at 11:20 when a no-look pass from Dylan Cozens gave Peterka an open net to score his 11th goal of the season. So, the Rangers push began.
Fans rose from their seats as Fox, puck on the blade of his cane, looked at Levi. Ready for the recent Norris Trophy winner to shoot, Levi followed the puck to the front of the net and used his right pad to prevent Vincent Trocheck’s redirection. The crowd roared again.
“Obviously he did very well,” Samuelsson said. “I think the biggest thing you notice is how soft it is and I think it reads plays very well. You can’t say that about all goalies. Some goalies are just good at stopping the puck. Some goalies have hockey minds and they achieve”. They look easy because they know what plays are going on.”
A few minutes later, Greenway put Buffalo ahead by two when the 6-foot-6 forward shielded the puck with his left arm and, using one hand to grab his stick, lobbed the puck over Halak’s glove. Late in the second period, following Kakko’s goal that cut the lead to 2-1, Levi made the highlight video and made a save to stop the Rangers winger’s single shot that conjured chants from the crowd.
“It was amazing,” Levi said of the chant. “Fans are unreal.”
The Rangers took control in the third period, invading the offensive zone to earn scoring chances. Levi struggled in his box to stop shots and avoid rebounds, doing both as the Rangers earned back-to-back chances early in the third period. They tied it 2-2 when he thought he had the puck covered, only to see Fox tackle him on the goal line. He was in position when Panarin had the puck on his stick with a chance to give the Rangers (44-21-11) the lead late in their second game in as many nights.
This debut, unexpected to those who don’t follow the Sabres closely, is part of Levi’s goal of getting a “development year” in the final weeks of the season. His first start came against a playoff-bound team that had gone 9-2-1 in its previous 12 games. He’ll dissect the goals against and his decision in the first period when Chytil missed an open net. Every moment he will be used to prepare you for what is to come.
“I learned a lot from this game. I think I played well. I definitely know where I can improve. I feel like I have more and I feel like I’ve been growing every day. I think this is the beginning for me.” getting better every day and helping the lucky guys in a playoff run. That is the goal. I’m going to work as hard as I can to be ready for the call and if I get the call I’ll do my best. I can give these guys the best chance to win.
Here are other observations from the game:
The Sabers hadn’t seen many promising moments from Greenway since his arrival in a trade at the deadline. He scored one goal in eight games, then missed four with an upper-body injury. His drive to the net in the second period on Friday should alleviate some concerns.
Greenway got past Ben Harpur on his way to the net and somehow scored his fourth goal of the season. Greenway was parked in front of the net for many of his at-bats and helped extend possession up front, but he too had some tough times, which Granato blamed on lost time with injury.
Peterka, Cozens and Jack Quinn were part of a starting lineup that averaged just over 22 years of age, then controlled the game for most of their first-half shifts. The Sabers had seven shot attempts and four chances on goal with the trio on the ice at 5-on-5 in the first 20 minutes, according to Natural Stat Trick. Peterka’s goal gives the rookie winger 10 points in his last 10 games, while Cozens’ no-look pass has given him five points in his last five.
Peterka and Quinn each had five shots on goal, and Cozens nearly set up Alex Tuch for the game-winner in extra time before Skinner scored.
This was another game that showed Samuelsson’s importance to the Sabres. He finished with 22:13 of ice time, blocked two shots and helped kill the penalty in the third period. Time out of the lineup made it a difficult night for Samuelsson. He said he hit a wall in the third quarter because there’s no way to prepare to return for a game at the end of the regular season.
Samuelsson expressed his frustration over the various injuries he has suffered this season, the latest of which saw him miss 10 of the previous 12 games, but was delighted to be back with his teammates on and off the ice.
“I’m always injured, I feel like it,” he lamented. “Part of it is bad luck. Part of it is the style of game that I play. I know I’m going to be banged up all year and obviously I’m fine with that, but you know me pretty well, I miss having so much fun when I’m injured. I’m so bored.
“And I feel like the last two days of being back with the team, being involved in the banter and in the locker room afterward, everyone was excited when Dev came back. Those little things, you miss so much and you don’t.” I do not realize. I think when you play 50 games in a row in the middle of the season, you take something for granted. On the bench, I was howling and yelling the whole time. I was happy to be back.”
Still upset from the injury suffered a week earlier against New Jersey, Thompson did not skate Friday morning and has not been on the ice with the team since the win over the New York Islanders. He has 44 goals and is still one point away from becoming the first Saber with 90 in a season since Daniel Briere added 95 in 2006-07.
Granato said there is a “small” chance Thompson will be available to play Saturday in Philadelphia. Casey Mittelstadt centered the top line along with Tuch and Skinner with Thompson out.
The other scratches on the team were Riley Stillman, Kale Clague, Vinnie Hinostroza, Craig Anderson and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.
The Sabers travel to Philadelphia to play the Flyers on Saturday at 7pm