A reoccurring theme for the Toronto Marlies over the past has come between the pipes. Since the Brian Burke era, the Leafs organization has almost always had a pair of young netminders in the Marlies, competing against each other in an attempt to win the starting job, which theoretically would help to improve their game.
Some good goalies have come up through this method; James Reimer has obviously been with the Leafs for years, Ben Scrivens spent a few years in the NHL and is a hot streak away from working his way back up. Even some of the guys who didn’t quite make it (Jussi Rynnas, Mark Owuya, etc) have continued to get paid in pro hockey while producing decent results in the immediate for the Marlies. Save for the year and a half where Drew MacIntyre controlled the pipes, the trend has always been for that young duo to be the nucleus.
That hasn’t changed this year; Antoine Bibeau and Garret Sparks are both vying to get the bulk of the minutes. Tonight, Antoine Bibeau got the first semblance of an indication that he might carry the weight.
Now, it’s important to keep in mind how early in the season it is when you consider any sort of goaltending battle. Through tonight, the Marlies have played seven games, and if you’re splitting, this means a single shot can be all the difference to one’s save percentage, if not your win percentage. It’s an incredibly small sample.
As proof of this, going into both of their numbers to start the year doesn’t show the type of performance you’d expect out of a competition. Toronto is near the bottom of the AHL in save percentage, stopping just 90.2% of shots on goal to start the year. This isn’t what you expected from Bibeau, a pro sophomore who had four shutouts in 3Shedl0 games in his rookie year, or Sparks, who lead the ECHL in save percentage by a country mile with a staggering 0.936 on the Orlando Solar Bears.
Of the two, Bibeau has the numbers on his side. His 0.908 save percentage is a dip from last year, but still slightly above the AHL’s present 0.905 average. Sparks, on the other hand, is running at a 0.895; the lowest he’s been since his OHL rookie season. A lot of that comes from being in net for Toronto’s 5-1 loss to Binghampton, a game full of odd-man rushes and breakaways, but while the difficulty was obviously harder, great goalies are expected to pull out great performances from time to time.
While Bibeau has been far from mindblowing, he’s often been good enough. Heading into tonight, he won all four of his starts. Toronto’s effectiveness in limiting shots (7th-fewest against in the league) helps with that, but while he’s yet to have had a standout game, he provided ample competence to keep the trains chugging.
Sheldon Keefe had that mindset tonight and decided to reward him with the consecutive start. After all, his performance against Lehigh Valley on Sunday was his best yet, and it was a lower workload than the average game (21 saves on 22 shots, with the only goal coming on a breakaway). Combine that with two days rest, and it’s no surprise that Bibeau ended up getting the call.
Unfortunately, at the final buzzer, his winning streak came to an end. This time, the Syracuse Crunch, who started off the game getting heavily outshot by Toronto, managed to slip three by him as the pendulum swung back in their favour. All the same, you can’t point fingers and call it the wrong decision; the Marlies gave him little support tonight. Rich Clune opened the scoring with a banged-in rebound in the game’s opening minutes, but from there, the sticks went dry.
Then again, if we’re going to talk about goaltending prospects, look no further than the Crunch, who had Andrei Vasilevsky in net. Vasilevsky is regarded by many as the best goaltending prospect on the planet right now and is only with the team on a conditioning stint, as he recovers from a blood clot. Clearly,not the best break for the Marlies, who will look to their game against Grand Rapids on Friday night as their last chance to pick up two points before heading on a three-week road trip.
Photo courtesy of Christian Bonin / TSGPhoto.com