TORONTO – Garret Sparks knows he can’t repeat his Game 6 performance if his Toronto Marlies are going to win the Calder Cup.
And he’s not the slightest bit concerned he can’t return to the form that won him the AHL’s top goaltender award either.
“Extremely confident,” Sparks said minutes after a 5-2 loss to the Texas Stars.
That would be a welcome change because Sparks looked nothing like himself on Tuesday as the Marlies missed their first chance to win their first championship in franchise history. Game 7 is Thursday in Toronto.
The 24-year-old goalie surrendered four goals on 17 shots before ceding the net to partner Calvin Pickard early in the third period.
It was a less-than-stellar outing witnessed by Brendan Shanahan, Kyle Dubas and Mike Babcock, the top decision-makers of the Toronto Maple Leafs – the club he expects to play for next season.
While he was left defenceless on multiple occasions on goals from the Stars, the biggest blunder was self-inflicted.
With the Stars up 1-0 late in the second period, Sparks made a poor clearing attempt that landed right on Justin Dowling’s stick in the slot without a defenceman in sight.
Sparks stopped Dowling, but left the rebound in the crease and Travis Morin tapped it in.
Barely two minutes later, Marlies forward Colin Greening was stripped by Austin Fyten at the Toronto blue line. He walked in and beat Sparks on the unfettered chance.
“One of them was clearly my fault,” Sparks said of the turnovers. “We can’t be turning pucks over like that to a team like that that’s opportunistic. If we’re going to do that, you have to make saves. I didn’t do that.”
While Calle Rosen pulled the Marlies within two early in the third, the Stars quickly restored their three-goal margin when Sheldon Dries scored on a short-handed breakaway 91 seconds later.
Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe decided that goal would be the end of the night for Sparks.
“I had some concerns about Sparksy and where he was at,” Keefe said. “He deserves the opportunity to be in the net for us. We didn’t do him any favours either. Let’s be honest.
“The second one he wants to have back, but we’re not very good on the first or third goals at all. We don’t give him any help on the fourth goal either. It’s not just on Sparksy here by any means.”
More concerning to Keefe was the way the Marlies crumpled after such a dominating first period.
The Marlies hemmed the Stars in their end for much of the frame, particularly in the second half, as they controlled the shot attempts. The shots on goal were 16-4. It resulted in nothing on the scoreboard.
After Stars captain Curtis McKenzie netted his 11th of the post-season 6:46 – a goal in which he deked out Sparks in front – the Marlies slowly unravelled.
“We felt like we should have come out of that first period more than 0-0,” Keefe said. “We weren’t able to do so. We just weren’t able to stick with it and that’s disappointing.”
Marlies blueliner Justin Holl netted a late goal after plenty of sustained pressure before Stars’ Colin Markison scored into an empty net.
Mike McKenna stopped 43 shots for Texas. He certainly helped the Stars’ cause, whereas the Marlies didn’t help their own.
They were afforded all four power plays. The Stars got the only goal during those eight minutes.
“We carried the play for long stretches of the game. But we gifted them goals,” Keefe said. “They didn’t gift us anything.”
The biggest gift came courtesy of Sparks on the Morin marker.
Not only that, but he wasn’t nearly as sharp as his .936 save percentage and 1.79 goals-against average from the regular season would suggest.
But he’s not worried about an encore on Thursday.
“Five years of experience (in the AHL). Seventeen games in the NHL. Everything that I’ve done to this point in my career,” Sparks said when asked about what he draws from ahead of Game 7.
“I feel like everybody in the locker room will do the exact same. We know who we are as players. We know it didn’t go our way tonight. That doesn’t change what we’re doing.”
Keefe felt the Marlies let one slip away, but they’ve “earned the opportunity to have two cracks at this.”
That’s the way Sparks feels, too. And he’s ready to help his team make amends.
“We’re fine,” he said. “We got away from what we were doing a little bit in the second period. It kind of snowballed on us. We’re a resilient team. I like our odds in Game 7.”
NOTES: The Marlies got defenceman Travis Dermott back after he missed Game 5 with a reported upper-body injury. Andrew Nielsen, Dermott’s replacement, came out of the lineup to make room for him.