Maple Leafs’ Garret Sparks: ‘This year isn’t over for me’

Dougie Hamilton scored two goal and the Carolina Hurricanes kept pace in the race for the playoffs by beating the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-1.

TORONTO — If Garret Sparks stands in the crease again during the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 2018-19 campaign, it means something has gone awry.

Toronto’s 4-1 loss Tuesday to a Carolina Hurricanes franchise that needed the two points infinitely more than pretty much every Leaf — except, possibly, for Sparks — will be the last scheduled start for Frederik Andersen’s understudy, and he fumbled a couple of his lines.

Last we saw Sparks, he was despondent in Kanata Saturday. He was taking ownership for his second consecutive loss to the NHL’s 31st-ranked team. He was vowing to bounce back.

The very next goal he allowed was a spirit-crusher, a gif and a curse.

Late in the first period, Carolina running through one of its epic, grinding cycles, Justin Williams only had one hand on his stick as he swatted the puck along the ice from behind the Leafs’ goal line and toward Sparks’ boots.

Somehow, from the gaudiest of angles, it clicked off the goalie’s skate blade and in.

“It just kind of came to the wrong spot, exactly where I didn’t need it to go. I don’t know,” Sparks lamented after the seventh Toronto loss in his past eight appearances. “It’s not even a situation where you’re typically down because the puck is behind the net. It’s just a tough bounce.”

Ditto the next one, a power-play rebound marker from defenceman Dougie Hamilton that he, too, whacked from behind the cage, off Sparks’ leg and in.

“I saw his pad off the net and tried to sneak it behind him. It bounced off his pad and in,” Hamilton shrugged. “Good bounce.”

Well, depending on your point of view.

Two desperate, behind-the-goal-line bank shots. Two red lamps. Game over.

Don’t check your mentions.

“I’ll be ready next year. I’ll be ready if anything happens,” promised Sparks, whose desire and work ethic aren’t the issue here.

“This year isn’t over for me. I’m still going to be a big part of this team going down the stretch, and I’ll push guys every day to be better and be a good teammate. That’s all you can do.

“Support Fred.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Surely, it wouldn’t be fair to drape this one all on Sparks. By the time Carolina had registered two goals, the Maple Leafs had registered two shots.

Of the 17 starts the 25-year-old was granted in his first season as a full-time NHLer, he posted a sub-.900 save percentage in more than half of them — but this wasn’t one.

He settled down to turn away several Grade-A stops, but the damage had long been wrought, and an unobstructed view of a Jordan Staal wrister that beat him in the high slot didn’t help.

The locals mock-cheered when, with roughly 2:30 left, Sparks was pulled for an extra attacker.

After the buzzer, both head coaches pointed to goaltending as the difference.

“I thought [Petr] Mrazek was excellent,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock, delivering his criticism via omission. “They didn’t have a ton of chances. We did a good job around our net early, but they had zone time.

“In the end, Mrazek did a good job for them. That’s the way it is.”

The way the 2018-19 Garret Sparks Experience ends is with an 8-9-1 record and a .902 save percentage, just two of those wins coming against likely playoff teams (Pittsburgh and Columbus).

The goalie’s post–Calder Cup roller coaster featured a thrilling, emotional OT win on his hometown Chicago ice; a 6-0 shutout over Philly that final-strawed Flyers coach Dave Hakstol’s firing and earned Sparks a Hockey Night in Canada towel; a concussion off the blade of William Nylander during practice; a devoured-by-wolves appearance at Nassau Coliseum for John Tavares’s homecoming; and a memorable public challenge for more emotion, more anger from himself and his teammates.

That Sparks is even in position to back up Andersen when the Leafs’ post-season opens in Boston next Thursday is a reminder of rookie GM Kyle Dubas’s loyalty, and his power to make roster decisions his coach might feel otherwise about.

Dubas then re-upped Sparks mid-season for one more year at $750,000.

The more proven Michael Hutchinson, 29, is an impending UFA who has shown well with the Marlies, and highly touted, highly green 20-year-old prospects Ian Scott and Joseph Woll should be fired up for next fall’s camp. (Woll has been practising and travelling with the Leafs since last week to get a taste of NHL life and ease Andersen’s workload.)

It was little secret that Babcock preferred the club keep Curtis McElhinney, 35, out of training camp, but the veteran was lost to Carolina on waivers and has since formed a dynamic duo with Mrazek, going 19-11-2 with a .912 save percentage and a pair of shutouts.

“We’ve had a great friendship from Day 1 when we met. We’ve been friends for the whole season, supporting one another, and that’s important,” Mrazek says.

“All goalies know pressure. It’s nice. You see him play really well, and when he gets a chance to play over me, we push each other to be better.”

Such is the case with half of this spring’s playoff entries; oddly, eight of the 16 teams in position dress two goaltenders with a minimum 30 starts each.

If their Game 1 starter falters or falls to injury, they trust their backup nearly as much. The Bruins fall into that category. So do the Hurricanes, and coach Rod Brind’Amour loves both options.

“[McElhinney and Mrazek] have bought into just playing for the team. I don’t think it’s ideal for either one of them. I’m sure one guy would want to play more, but that’s what’s special about this group — they do what’s best for the team,” Brind’Amour said.

“Goaltending has put us in the place we’re in now — a chance to make playoffs.”

Toronto, however, will ride or die with Andersen.

So the Leafs will start Andersen Thursday versus Tampa and Saturday in Montreal — not, Babcock says, to spoil the Canadiens’ wild-card designs but to find a rhythm.

He better, because at this point, the coach will be loath to turn to Plan B.

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