CHICAGO – It had been more than 900 days since Garret Sparks last made a NHL start, but the Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender was waiting considerably longer for this one.
One of the perks of winning a hotly contested backup job out of training camp was that the second half of the team’s first back-to-back came here at United Center – a short drive from where Sparks was raised in Elmhurst, Ill. So on Sunday night he was on the other side of the glass from where he once closely studied visiting goaltenders, turning back 25 shots and getting a 7-6 win over the Chicago Blackhawks with the help of a hat trick from John Tavares, two more goals from Auston Matthews and an overtime winner from Morgan Rielly.
It was an emotional night for Sparks, who made 17 appearances for the Leafs during the lost 2015-16 season and had to outlast veteran Curtis McElhinney just to get another one.
And here, of all places.
"You had 25 years to prepare for it, you better be ready," said Sparks.
It was hard to prepare for this.
Rielly’s winner 19 seconds into overtime capped a titanic back-and-forth struggle that saw Patrick Kane tie it 5-5 with 84 seconds to play, Matthews reply 22 seconds later and Kane reply 33 seconds after that.
That was not exactly what Mike Babcock and Joel Quenneville drew up, but it was damn entertaining.
The Blackhawks came roaring out of the gates in their home opener, firing five shots at Sparks before the three-minute mark, and built a 2-0 lead on goals by Jonathan Toews and Alex DeBrincat.
But Toronto clawed back when Babcock shifted Kasperi Kapanen to Auston Matthews’s right wing and saw those two connect on consecutive shifts.
Tavares scored his first of the night by whacking a rebound out of the air and then tipped home a Mitch Marner slap pass on a power play. Just one hat hit the ice when he beat Cam Ward again at 9:29 of the third period, giving the Leafs a 5-4 lead after Brandon Manning had tied things up for Chicago.
That was enough to make a winner out of Sparks in front of a large group of family and friends. One of his better stops came on a second-period rush from Kane, who along with Toews has played for the Blackhawks since Sparks was coming here as a kid.
"You grew up watching those guys, you grew up going to Cup parades and being a part of the experience even if you’re also a hockey player," he said. "They won their first Cup in 2010, so I was definitely at a couple of the parades. It’s just cool. Like I’m a hockey fan and just to be able to compete against those guys, you don’t think of it as preparing yourself for a competitive advantage or anything.
"It’s good to test yourself against guys like that."