Once upon a time in Orlando, I sat in the Amway Arena press box watching a young Maple Leafs prospect leaning nonchalantly back against his pipes. He draped one arm over it, watching the action at the other end of the ice, elbow nestled comfortably next to his water bottle.
"Uh, does he do this all the time?" I asked Don Money, the guy in the press box next to me.
Don gave me a wry half-nod, and I watched for a good few minutes as the goaltender didn't move a muscle from his resting pose while the team in front of him valiantly pelted the opposite goaltender.
Soon the puck was turned over, and it was like a switch flipped. Suddenly Garret Sparks took control of the goal, focused and clear, assuming his position. He turned aside everything that was flung at him, even though the ECHL Solar Bears of the pre-Noreen era weren't the best at setting up defense in front of him.
The game, my first ever blogging for PPP, ended in a 15-round shootout loss. Sparks spoke to the press after the loss, and I still remember his words, lonely words:
"It’s amplified when you’re down here and you don’t have maybe the coaching, the specific goalie coaching that you’re used to up there, you have to do a lot on your own and figure out a lot on your own...it’s a challenging place to play in the sense that you’re kind of on your own, in that you don’t have anybody looking at you 24/7, you have to do it on your own, so it should benefit prospects long-term to have more people down here."
Over the course of the year I watched Sparks think hard. The Solar Bears made the playoffs with a shutout win by Sparks, saving 33 shots in an uneven game that he maybe stole.
Then, adversity struck. The Solar Bears dropped the first two games of the series. Facing a swift exit, the third game came, and shots were 50 to 19 for the Everblades, ensuring -- a Solar Bears victory? The Solar Bears won 5-2, and in the press room, a bearded Sparks discussed what changed:
"I put a lot of pressure on myself. I had a good talk with Toronto’s goalie coach, Piero Greco, today. He told me to just go have fun, you know, to enjoy the experience for what it is. We worked hard to get here, and we’re the underdogs, so just go out and play. That’s what I tried to do, and I think I’m just going to go with that from now on."
A little encouragement from Greco to enjoy the game went a long way. Solar Bears took the Everblades to seven games, finally losing in overtime, but Sparks remained strong throughout. He left for Toronto shortly thereafter to join the Marlies' playoff run as a black ace -- and never looked back.
Tonight, Sparks faced adversity again. His first start was almost a walk. His second, a grim rout. Will Sparks put back on the mental toughness and resiliency that allowed him to take a tour of the minors and climb his way back up?
WPG/TOR Goalies: G. Sparks: 0.936 since start of 2013/14 (2nd in North America) C. Hellebuyck: 0.924 (@InGoalMedia's #1 Ranked G Prospect)— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) December 2, 2015
For a little while in the first period, everything looked fine. After two minutes of play, Michael Grabner got rid of the 0 in his goal column with an excellent bit of positioning in front of the net, swiftly shoveling home a pass from Daniel Winnik in back of yet another "second NHL game ever" goaltender Connor Hellebuyck.
Early on, Sparks was solid:
Then, the Jets evened the score at the 8:25 mark on a Drew Stafford redirect of a Mark Scheifele shot, and then pulled ahead with three minutes left in the period on a powerplay goal from the very same Drew Stafford. That second goal probably haunted Sparks, although it was lovely to see Phaneuf once again hopping right into the crease to help out his newest buddy. Phaneuf is no goalie, though, and this happened:
Stafford on point. pic.twitter.com/wUVz5cVIcD— Winnipeg Jets (@NHLJets) December 3, 2015
In the second, there were fewer penalties, and a lot more running back and forth and not scoring. Sparks and Hellebuyck both held it together, perhaps inspired by giving up goals in the first. Sparks looked good in the second, but the Leafs couldn't generate offense to help him out.
Here I'll insert some insight from Katya.
"Icetime strangeness in the first period is largely due to lack of 5 on 5 play. In the second, the strangeness was the blender action on D pairings coming out of the last man advantage. Everyone played with everyone a little.
"Bozak...upped his game. Kadri has a slightly higher percentage, but Bozak has more shots. Froese is fantastic out there. Big amount of offence in a very small amount of time. He shoots a lot for a guy with very little icetime. Spaling is still bad. He’s not over 50% vs anyone, and he never sees the Jets top line. That’s Kadri’s job tonight, and he’s getting over 65% shot differential against that line. Froese fills in when Kadri’s off with numbers almost as good.
"The Leafs have neutralized Byfuglien unless Spaling’s line is out, and that happens very rarely.
"Other really odd thing I just noticed—most the shooting is this game is actually coming from the D. Froese is the only forward with more than 2 shots (Corsi shots, not SOG)."
Then came the third.
I started off this recap with a story about Sparks being tested -- by getting sent down, by learning from his losses, by thinking through ways to improve. The third period was one that tested Sparks, the Jets jumping all over him early. Scheifele's second point of the night came on a goal at 1:25, and another goal snapped in by Andrew Ladd at 2:43. Nick Spaling almost cut the lead to 4-2, but the goal was overturned.
(Which led me to ask the question: Could Babcock challenge an opposing coach's challenge result? If any coach could do it, it would be him. OK fine, it's probably against the rules. But still.)
Yeah, then Bryan Little got a wrist shot through and instead of 4-2, it was 5-1, and the nail in the coffin came from Anthony Peluso's shot at the 18 minute mark, 6-1, which is a season high for goals against.
Do we continue to believe in Garret Sparks?
According to War-on-ice.com, he gave up more high-danger shots than anything else (4 high, 2 medium). In a game where possession was pretty even, the difference was that Hellebuyck gave up exactly one high-danger shot.
But from a more human perspective, last year at this time Sparks was bouncing around on a bus in the ECHL; this year, he was named AHL goaltender of the month of November. He's got some growing to do, but if anyone can evolve like a clever Pokemon, it's Sparks.
More interesting things that happened:
- Kadri drew a lot of penalties by being a little sh*t. According to Mirtle, he actually leads the league in being a little sh*it, too. Kadri tried his best to take out Tyler Myers by drawing a penalty from him, which was a beautiful read of what was necessary in the game, essentially punching Myers with his face. Nothing came of the penalty, but it allowed Sparks a moment or two to breathe.
- Nobody understands why Mike Babcock loves Brian Froese so much on the power play, or so much in general. My Winging It In Motown friends assure me that it's because of Froese's ability to win faceoffs. "There's always this one guy that Babcock loves for faceoffs," JJ from Kansas told me once, glumly, and then told me to check out how Babcock used Luke Glendening last season. Grinder, defensive forward, liability to his teammates ... Hmmmmm.
- Then Sportsnet played a montage of all of Froese's facial injuries and said, "and he hasn't been out of the lineup yet," and I felt slightly guilty.
- Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick led the Leafs D in TOI, and, um, Froese and Kadri led the forwards.
- Like the most gracious of hosts, Jets fans filled the stadium with the loud chant of "Spaaaarky, Spaaaaaaarky" as their win became more certain. These are the people that took the franchise away from Atlanta? May their tracksuits always feel slightly damp.