BUFFALO, N.Y. — Talk about a tough situation for your backup goaltender.
By the time the Toronto Maple Leafs reached the third period in the second half of a back-to-back, it was basically Garret Sparks’ game to lose. His teammates had been dominant, but couldn’t put the Buffalo Sabres fully away on Wednesday night.
And Sparks, starting days after saying his team needed to play with more emotion, was in the crosshairs. And he held it together.
“He played well. He came up with some big saves, especially towards the end of the third period 6-on-5,” Auston Matthews said following Toronto’s 4-2 win. “He was just solid in net for us. I think that’s all you can ask for, from him.
“He was used to playing all the time the last couple years in the American League and just not being able to kind of get in a rhythm, it’s tough I can imagine for goalies. He was big for us tonight in a game we felt was a must-win.”
This first full year in the NHL has been an adventure for Sparks. He recently said that the ups and downs have “been emotionally taxing, I won’t lie” and, in light of that admission and Toronto’s recent struggles, this was a confidence-building performance.
He stopped Johan Larsson on an early short-handed breakaway and then overplayed Casey Mittlestadt’s tough-angle shot on a power play, seeing the puck glance off his blocker and in.
The Leafs had owned the territorial advantage at that point and were suddenly down 1-0. It was time to dig in.
“It’s always difficult when your team plays so well that they are shooting at a rapid pace and you’re not seeing much action,” said Sparks, who made 22 saves. “You just have to stay engaged and stay focused. I had a lot of experience with that last year with the Marlies — we were a possession team and there were stretches of time where I didn’t see the puck that much.
“It’s something that I guess I’m conditioned for.”
It didn’t help that Sparks was without a victory since Feb. 2, seeing Toronto drop seven of the last eight games where he stepped into the crease. Sparks also put some added attention on himself after allowing all six goals in a 6-2 loss to Ottawa on Saturday and offered a blunt assessment of where things were at afterwards.
“We need more emotion,” he said.. “I’m an emotional player, I need more emotion, we need more emotion from everybody. We need people to get angry, we need people to step up and be mad and take it personally.”
The Leafs seem to have emerged from their March slumber since. They tightened things up considerably during a loss in Nashville on Tuesday before skating the Sabres into submission and controlling more than 65 per cent of the attempts.
Still, Sparks had to be sharp with Carter Hutton having a standout game in the Buffalo net. He also got some help from his goal post on a Brandon Montour chance in the third period.
It was an important two points after Toronto had dropped four of its last five games.
“I just think it brings us back to our confidence we need and brings us back to the team we know we can be,” said Mitch Marner. “I think last week our confidence was a little low. We were giving up too many rushes, we were giving up too many chances. We kind of talked as a team — we sat down — and we realized if we’re all working how hard we can make it on teams.”
Matthews was a big driver in tilting the ice.
He ended up tying the game 1-1 on a lucky bounce, when an Andreas Johnsson pass went in off his right skate. Then he and William Nylander created some good possession down low before John Tavares found a skittering rebound at 18:32 of the second period, and Marner squeaked a puck through early in the third.
However, Alex Nylander got that one back with a wicked release — his second NHL goal in his second NHL game against his older brother — to keep things tight until Zach Hyman hit the empty net in the final minute.
Despite everything in the air lately, Sparks found a little more peace of mind before puck drop at Key Bank Center.
“I think I actually felt less [pressure],” he said. “I just wanted to go out and play my game. I had a great morning skate in Nashville and I just wanted to carry that momentum over to the game and play a little looser, a little more energetic.
“I just let my game do the talking.”
To what does he attribute the step forward?
“It just comes with experience,” said Sparks. “Start after start, you start to slowly gain an idea of what works and what doesn’t.”