Maple Leafs’ Garret Sparks’ patience paying off in string of starts

NHL insider Chris Johnston joins Nikki Reyes to get us set for Maple Leafs vs. Wild special afternoon tilt, where Garret Sparks is ready for his 4th straight start, and William Nylander looks to be reunited on a line with Auston Matthews.

TORONTO — The only prize the Toronto Maple Leafs were chasing the last time Garret Sparks saw a stretch of NHL starts like this one was the right to draft Auston Matthews.

There’s been a lot of road travelled inside three years for both the goaltender and his organization, and it’s given Sparks a foundation of confidence as he’s called upon for the fourth straight time Thursday with Minnesota visiting Scotiabank Arena for an extremely rare afternoon game.

He is in this position now because Frederik Andersen is nursing a groin injury that’s kept him out of practice. But he’s also here because of the steady gains made since being thrown to the wolves at the end of that lost Leafs season of 2015-16, a step-by-step process that sometimes required belief when reassuring results weren’t always at hand.

“You have to have faith in what you’re doing,” Sparks said Wednesday. “That’s what all the work’s about on a daily basis. If you show up and you work hard one day, and you don’t see anything, and then you don’t show up and keep working hard, what’s that going to do for you?

“So it’s cumulative. It’s all marginal gains. It’s something that we’ve always talked about.”

It’s a philosophy that he’s been able to lean on during his first full season as a NHL backup — one that started with intermittent playing opportunities behind Andersen but seems to be trending towards a heavier workload in the second half.

Big picture, Sparks is doing well.

He’s 6-2-1 with a .905 save percentage and playing on a team with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations. He’s been bailed out a time or two by his team’s superlative ability to score goals, but has also had wins that required 39, 34 and 34 saves.

And he’s done it while acknowledging that he’s still learning to handle the scrutiny that comes with his position. Sparks is plenty aware of the doubters out there — “the stuff you see on the screen,” he said. That wasn’t something he faced while working his way up from the American Hockey League.

“I lived a professional life in the city of Toronto for five years without having to deal with the microscope, and it was enjoyable,” said Sparks. “So this year’s been more challenging. But I’m 25-years-old, I’m looking for a challenge. I’m looking for challenge in life.

“If I didn’t want a challenge, I wouldn’t put the expectations on myself the way I do.”

The challenge has grown these last two weeks.

Sparks took the Leafs into the holiday break with a 5-4 victory over Detroit on Dec. 23 and played again coming out of it in a 4-2 win against Columbus. The following night, he started a third straight in a 4-0 loss to the New York Islanders.

The only other time he started three times in a row in the NHL was March 2016, after James Reimer had been traded to San Jose. Sparks lost nine of his 12 starts to close out that year while surrounded by a depleted Leafs lineup that was playing out the string.

Looking back, it seems like a parallel universe.

There are now heavy expectations for a 26-11-2 team and the man chosen over Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard out of training camp, even if Sparks is still trying to carve out his place behind Andersen.

“The backup goalie position is a hard position mentally,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “You see a lot of veteran guys doing it, you don’t see as many kids doing it and there’s a reason. It’s mentally hard.

“He’s getting an opportunity right now, though, to show what he has. I think that’s what you’re always hoping for.”

Sparks begins 2019, he says, looking to build on the positive momentum he created in 2018. His last year included being named the AHL’s top goaltender, helping lead the Marlies to a Calder Cup and claiming the backup job with the Leafs.

“It’s just continuing to do more of the things that bring you success and eliminate more of the things that get in your way. It’s just refining everything,” Sparks said. “That’s the thing: You can get to that 90 per cent, it’s that last 10 per cent that you can work your whole life on. You know, trying to get to 100.”

He senses progress that can’t simply be measured by the results of a few hockey games.

Sparks mentions, for example, the edge he continually gains through the “opportunity and resources” provided by the deep-pocketed Leafs organization.

“I think it’s coaching. I think it’s the whole sports science staff,” he said. “I think it’s just the attention to detail on every aspect of what we do.”

Even though Andersen’s injury doesn’t seem to be serious — he’s been on the ice for individual sessions with goalie coach Steve Briere each of the last three days — Sparks could well follow Thursday afternoon’s game by starting a fifth straight against Vancouver on Saturday night.

Either way, he’s simply trying to take everything as it comes.

And he believes the best is yet to come.

“I don’t even think I’m the same goalie that I was in October,” said Sparks. “I think every day I become a better version of myself, that’s what I work for. Results that display that, they show up when it matters.

“Last year it took until Game 7 of the Calder Cup for those results to truly, truly show themselves to me. It took until Game 7 — Game 96 of our season last year — for the difference between what I did all year and the difference between what everybody else did all year to finally show itself.

“So we’re sitting here on Jan. 2. Let’s see where we are on June 2.”

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