LONDON, Ont. - A lot of young goaltenders turning professional would look at the logjam ahead of them on the depth chart and think, Yikes!
Not Garret Sparks.
"I'm not an NHL goalie yet and I know that," Sparks declared after backstopping the Toronto Maple Leafs to a thrilling 3-2 shootout win over the Chicago Blackhawks at the four-team rookie tournament here Thursday night. "I'm still working toward a spot in the AHL so anything I can do that is a positive at this point is fine by me. Every game...every chance I get, I just want to go out and play the best I can and hopefully leave people with a good impression."
Where the Maple Leafs goaltending is concerned, all the buzz is about the battle that incumbent James Reimer and newcomer Jonathan Bernier will wage at the start of training camp Sept. 11 to see who will emerge as the starter when the 2013-14 regular season kicks off Oct. 1 in Montreal.
Sparks, who was drafted in the seventh round, 190th overall, by Toronto in 2011, has his sights set on making the Toronto Marlies.
The six-foot-three, 204-pounder from Elmvale, Ont., is known for his laser-quick legs and good glove hand. Last season with the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League, he posted a 36-17-4 record with a respectable 2.65 goals-against average and .917 save percentage with seven shutouts.
Against the Chicago rookies Thursday, Sparks was solid through the first 40 minutes, allowed a bit of a weak goal on a shot that seemed to handcuff him early in the third period when the Blackhawks cut Toronto's lead to 2-1 and then, with the game tied, made a remarkable leg save with 27 seconds remaining in regulation to vault the game into overtime. All in all, it was a night to be proud.
Marlies head coach Steve Spott, who handled the bench, felt Sparks's overall performance, in particular the last-second save in the third period, played a huge role in helping his team emerge victorious.
"It was huge," Spott said of the point-blank save. "He was great in the third. Chicago came at us and he kept us in the game. Obviously he was great in the shootout he was critical. He made a couple of great saves so it was a good win by him. He was solid. His rebound control was good and I thought he might want to have that first one back, but I don't know if he saw it. It might have caught him off guard."
Sparks acknowledged the late save, but didn't think it was anything special even if it did bring those in attendance at Budweiser Gardens out of their seats.
"At the end of the day one save is not more important than the other saves," Sparks said. "I could have made other saves in the game that I didn't make and I could have let in other goals that I made saves on. At the end of the day my job is to make saves when things go wrong and that's all I am trying to do."
Although he didn't look it, Sparks said he felt a little rusty.
"I felt like it was my first game in three months," Sparks said with a grin. "I tried to prepare for the game and get hydrated, but you can't prepare 100 per cent all the time and by the third period my legs were pretty shot. The good thing was everybody else was feeling it, too. I just tried to battle through it."
The last time Sparks attended Leafs rookie camp two years ago in Oshawa he knew he was ticketed back to junior hockey. Now he has graduated and how well he plays in the next two weeks will help determine where he starts the year. It could be with the Marlies or he could be assigned to the ECHL.
"The first year you come in as one of the younger guys and the next year you are looked upon to show what you have learned and show how you have improved over the past year or two," Sparks said. "This year there is a different approach because there is an end goal which is to ready for main camp and for whatever lies ahead.
"This year it's not that you're going back to junior; you've got a team to make and you've got people to impress. It's a lot more fun and a little bit more pressure, but that's why you play the game."
BIGGS GOAL: Tyler Biggs scored the deciding goal in Toronto's opening game of the rookie tournament featuring teams from Toronto, Ottawa, Pittsburgh and Chicago, but it wasn't his most lucrative score of the day. In the morning during a drill, coach Steve Spott wagered him $100 he wouldn't score on his next shot.
"He said, 'I bet you $100 you won't score,' " Biggs said. "I lined up, took a one-timer and put it top shelf and I went right back to him."
Any chance Spott will give you another $100 for the game-winner against the Blackhawks?
"I hope so," Biggs said. "That would be nice. At the end of the day no real money was passed around."
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