The great thing about numbers is that, in the long run, they’re typically less deceiving than your eyes. After all, they don’t measure how you get it done; they measure if you do it, which is the primary object of the game. With that said, numbers can be just as useless, if not more useless than the “eye test” at the start of a season; the samples are often much too small to gain any real insight from.
Garret Sparks’ first month of the season is a good example of this.
As you can see, Sparks’ numbers were brought down a bit by Toronto’s loss to Albany, but really plummeted on October 24th, in a game where Sparks stopped 31 shots. This is normally considered a strong performance, but the Binghamton Senators took 36, leaving five of them in the back of the net.
Watching that game’s highlights gives you an idea of why the result was so lopsided. Matt Puempel’s opening goal was a 2-on-0 one-timer. David Dziurzynski’s wrister wasn’t so excusable, a bit of a floater that throws off Sparks, but from there, the high-risk changes return. Eric O’Dell scores on a low-slot one-timer as Stuart Percy inadvertently screens his goalie. Cole Schneider scores on a breakaway, and then scores again on a 2-on-1 one-timer. Basically, this looks like a game of NHL 16 on a lower difficulty, and was easily the team’s worst effort of the season.
Of course, it reflected most negatively on Sparks’ numbers. Outside of TJ Brennan and William Nylander, nobody on the team is expected to get a point in almost every game, though some are making their case. When you get blown out in your third game of the season, however, that can take your save percentage from “above league average” to “mid-level beer leaguer”, which is exactly what happened.
Quickly, fans began to draw conclusions in the goaltending debate. Antoine Bibeau had more wins, no losses, and a higher save percentage. He’s younger, too. Obviously, no contest, right?
Thankfully for Sparks, hockey doesn’t work that way. Granted, Bibeau’s edge did give him a couple of benefits, like consecutive starts last week and an emergency call up to the Leafs yesterday. However, Sparks has responded with the best two-game stretch of his AHL career so far. On Friday night, he made 38 saves on 39 shots, keeping the Marlies in the game until they were ready to separate from Grand Rapids. His only goal against was in the opening shift of the third period, on a power-play rush.
This morning, in front of a bunch of screaming school children at XL Center in Hartford, he did the same thing, No matter how many times the Wolf Pack came blasting into the offensive zone, he was more than prepared. He was always in the right place at the right time, with little necessity for athleticism or reactionary moves, a shift in his game that he prided himself over last year. Such a performance was a necessity for the Marlies, who had picked up a goal thanks to a miracle shot by Marc Arcobello in the first period, but were getting outshot and outplayed in the opening forty minutes.
When Nikita Soshnikov gets the puck, good luck taking it away from him. pic.twitter.com/19OS6e46pz
— The Leafs Nation (@TLNdc) November 4, 2015
Things worked out in the end. Eventually, things began to click, and the Marlies exploded for three goals (from Kasperi Kapanen, Ryan Rupert, and Nikita Soshnikov) in the span of five minutes. Richard Panik added an insurance tally with a few minutes to go, and the only thing that stopped the Marlies from going up 6-0 was a slash by Justin Johnson as the puck was going in. While the scoresheet implies that Sparks’ 30-save shutout wasn’t a necessity, holding the fort for your team while they get their sticks together has a lot of value.
While he was near the bottom of the barrel, Sparks now finds holding the 10th highest save percentage in the AHL; his 0.933 looking very similar to the league-leading 0.936 he posted in the ECHL last year. It’s hard to say whether it will last, but you take those runs when you can get them.
The Bibeau/Sparks debate will probably flare up again shortly as a result. I don’t think there’s a value in picking a side, just like the Bernier/Reimer talk has grown tired over the past few years. The best case scenario is that both young goaltenders constantly try to one-up each other, and both put up strong results. So far, that’s looking like a realistic possibility.
Toronto returns to the ice on Friday night against the Utica Comets.