Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports
At this point last year, Garret Sparks was in the ECHL, putting up extremely solid numbers for the Orlando Solar Bears while the Toronto Marlies slowly inched their way out of the AHL’s gutter. It wasn’t the pathway he had planned to take at the start of the season and the then 21-year-old was starting to second guess his place in pro hockey.
In the twelve months that ensued, he rebuilt his technique, changed his attitude, spent extra time in the gym, and set his ambitions on earning his way back up the ranks. Which brought him tonight; another unplanned appearance on another team within the organization, but this time, he was looking upward.
Sparks took total advantage of the opportunity, becoming the first Leafs goalie to post a shutout in his NHL debut.
As you can see, there were some jitters to start, but the native of Elmhurst, Illinois gained full control of himself from there. A couple of easier shots came his way to get him in the groove of things, and when his first big test game, he was more than ready.
Suddenly, twenty minutes were off the books, and thanks to a bit of goal support from Leo Komarov, he had further pressure removed from where he started at opening puck drop. The Oilers kept chucking pucks his way, and he kept stopping them. As Mike Babcock said after the game, Sparks was very “6-3” throughout the night; not a nod to his height, but rather that he was he was chest out, head forward, with only the direction of his legs altering his North-South verticality.
The Oilers, bless their souls, kept pressing, as a team with tons of theoretical offensive firepower would do. In a rare moment of vulnerability, a loose puck trickled into the crease, but Sparks used some of the stickwork he has from playing forward in his free time to get the puck just barely out of harms way.
Forty minutes down. When the game came back to life, Nazem Kadri tipped a shot in from the hashmarks to get the Leafs even closer to a victory, but suddenly, the game had a different focus; a shutout was on the line.
Thankfully for Sparks, the team did their best to keep the puck out of the zone, grabbing an empty netter before effectively playing keep away in the game’s dying minute.
After the game, Sparks was already pretty emotional, but when he was told that he was the first in the team’s 98-year history to accomplish the feat, he broke down, even if just for a second.
It was an impressive night overall, and an example of a quality goaltending prospect standing up to pressure rather than crumbling under it. Babcock intends to reward him for his efforts if he’s still necessary to the roster, though if James Reimer is able to play on Wednesday, he’ll get the nod instead.
Either way, not a bad debut for a player months removed from levels of self-doubt from two leagues below.