When the Toronto Marlies started their 2016 playoff run, goaltending was a relative strength. In the playoffs, it was their undoing.
After a stint with the Leafs, 22-year-old Garret Sparks returned to the Marlies to cap off a regular season that saw him go 14-4-3 with a .928 save percentage (SV%). In six regular season games with the Marlies down the stretch in 2016, Sparks posted a .927 SV%. In his last start of the season, he made 45 saves on 47 shots (.957 SV%)
But to start the playoffs, Antoine Bibeau – who posted a .909 SV% on the season and .917 SV% in 2016 – was platooned in an early rotation with Sparks.
After Sparks played 88 shutout minutes in his first two appearances in the playoffs against Bridgeport, Bibeau remained in the rotation before Sparks returned to post a .931 SV% in a 2-1 loss against Albany. Despite allowing four goals on 12 shots against Bridgeport, the Marlies went to Bibeau as the full-time starter Sparks’ first loss.
In the Marlies’ second round series against the Albany Devils, prospect Scott Wedgewood found his game and nearly stole the series, while Bibeau closed out the round stopping 49 of 56 shots (.875 SV%). To start the second round, he responded by stopping 34 of 41 shots in parts of two games (.829 SV%), the latter of which Sparks also struggled in – albeit in relief during a game that was already lost. Bibeau, a former sixth round pick, had played to four consecutive games at a save percentage below .894.
Still, despite Bibeau’s .898 SV% in the playoffs, Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe went back to the second-year pro for Game 4, with the series on the line. And the Marlies responded with a 5-0 win where the 22-year-old QMJHL product made all 18 saves.
"I felt that he earned the net for us, played extremely well in the Albany series," Keefe said of the decision to go with Bibeau as the playoffs progressed. "I thought that as the Albany series wore on he started to fade a bit in Game 6 and 7 and then again in Game 1 – he wasn't quite the same as he was."
But there was never any intention to give Sparks back the net, according to Keefe. Sparks’ start late in the playoffs was a decision that was made because it was a back-to-back.
"I thought Bibeau responded well," Keefe added. "I thought that he really established himself as a number one goaltender in the American Hockey League down the stretch in the regular season."
On Sunday afternoon, in Game 5, Bibeau surrendered the first goal on a second-opportunity chance from Liam O’Brien off the rush on Hershey’s sixth shot of the game in the first period.
To start the second, he surrendered goals on the first two shots of the period to Christian Djoos and Nathan Walker. Had captain Andrew Campbell not reached behind his goalie to cover the puck with his hand and force a penalty shot, Bibeau would have allowed four goals on 11 shots.
And while the Marlies fought to get back in the game and outshot the Bears 23-20 in the game and 144-113 in the series, they fell 3-2 in the game and 4-1 in the series to end the season.
At the other end Justin Peters was outstanding, like Wedgewood before him, finishing the series with a .929 SV%.
Moving forward, the Marlies intend to use Bibeau’s playoff experience as a positive teaching tool.
"I’m really proud of how he grew through this, I think he has become a better goaltender and really matured a lot from this experience," Keefe said.
The same can be said for Garret Sparks, according to Keefe.
"I think there’s a lot that Garret Sparks can take from this experience, another guy came in and had the net and he’s got to find his way and we as an organization have to help him pick up the pieces as well," he said.
For Keefe, the tough decisions were also part of his learning experience as a first-year professional head coach.
"It’s time to reflect collectively as a group," he rightly said.