Rookie Sparks wins debut, gets teary in interview after making Maple Leafs history
A year ago, goaltender Garret Sparks was in the midst of a 13-game trip with the ECHL’s Orlando Solar Bears. A night after allowing four goals to the Fort Wayne Komets, he was on the bench in Kalamazoo, Mich., awaiting the next bus ride and his next start.
"You have a duffel bag and you don’t get to go home," Sparks said.
Now, Sparks is in the NHL, making a big first impression.
The 22-year-old became the first Maple Leafs goalie with a shutout in his NHL debut, lifting Toronto over the Edmonton Oilers 3-0 on Monday night.
"They’ve been playing hockey here a long time so I think that’s pretty cool," said Sparks, who was visibly emotional after being named the game’s first star with his parents watching from the crowd.
Sparks made 24 saves in the Leafs’ first shutout since Jonathan Bernier blanked the Dallas Stars on Dec. 23, 2014.
"Good for the kid," Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. "Life’s about opportunity and how you respond to that opportunity, obviously he must have some swagger about him, some confidence. He played well, we got a win."
Sparks was summoned from the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies earlier in the week to replace injured James Reimer and was given the chance to start over a struggling Bernier, who is 0-8-1 this season.
With Reimer not expected to be ready to play before Toronto’s next game on Wednesday night against Winnipeg, the Elmhurst, Illinois, native will get a chance for his second straight start.
"I assume he’s starting in Winnipeg unless (Reimer) is ready to go," Babcock said.
Leo Komarov scored twice and Nazem Kadri also had a goal to help Toronto snap a three-game skid. James van Riemsdyk added three assists.
Anders Nilsson turned away 23 of 25 shots and the Oilers wrapped up their five-game trip at 1-3-1.
"I didn’t think we were a very hard team," Oilers coach Todd McLellan said. "I didn’t think we stood over a lot of pucks, I didn’t think we won a lot of battles along the boards. I didn’t think we were competitive enough in a lot of areas to come up with the victory."
Both teams had only a shot apiece through the first 10 minutes.
Komarov opened the scoring with his team-leading and career high ninth goal of the season on the power play 6:45 into the first.
After a defensive breakdown by Edmonton’s penalty killers, van Riemsdyk found Komarov alone between the faceoff circles. He tipped the pass past Nilsson, who was frozen on the play by van Riemsdyk creeping in from the blue line.
Komarov’s goal was Toronto’s seventh on the power play in the past six games.
The Oilers had a strong first shift to open the second period and forced Sparks to make three quick saves, including one in close on Leon Draisaitl.
Justin Schultz managed to get the puck past Sparks but hit the post. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins struck iron for the second time in the middle frame with just over 5 minutes to play.
Draisaitl burned Matt Hunwick 1-on-1 late in the second off the rush to create a great scoring chance. The Leafs defenseman was forced into taking a hooking penalty while the puck sat loose in the crease after Sparks made the initial save with his blocker.
"Going into the third period (a shutout) is definitely on your mind," Sparks said. "You just want to be on and make sure if they’re going to beat you they have to really beat you. The guys in front of me kept everything outside, kept it manageable and I have them to thank."
The Leafs had an opportunity to double their lead with back-to-back power-play chances in the second, but were unable to do so.
The two clubs traded chances early in the third before Kadri made it 2-0 at 7:33 on a goal that went to review for a high stick.
Jake Gardiner floated the puck at the net from the blue line and Kadri deflected it down past Nilsson for his third of the season.
Taylor Hall had a great chance to put his team on the board late in the third while on the power play but was turned away by Sparks.
Komarov added his second goal of the game into an empty net with 1:01 remaining.
Notes: Sparks had the second highest save percentage (.938) in the AHL. … Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul missed his first game of the year with an undisclosed injury.
- Anders Nilsson
- Edmonton Oilers
- Garret Sparks
- Jake Gardiner
- James Reimer
- Joffrey Lupul
- Jonathan Bernier
- Leo Komarov
- Matt Hunwick
- Nazem Kadri
- Toronto Maple Leafs