Garret Sparks becomes first Leafs goaltender to earn shutout in NHL debut

USATSI_8965087_168381339_lowres (1)
Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports

At this point last year, Garret Sparks was in the ECHL, putting up extremely solid numbers for the Orlando Solar Bears while the Toronto Marlies slowly inched their way out of the AHL’s gutter. It wasn’t the pathway he had planned to take at the start of the season and the then 21-year-old was starting to second guess his place in pro hockey.

In the twelve months that ensued, he rebuilt his technique, changed his attitude, spent extra time in the gym, and set his ambitions on earning his way back up the ranks. Which brought him tonight; another unplanned appearance on another team within the organization, but this time, he was looking upward.

Sparks took total advantage of the opportunity, becoming the first Leafs goalie to post a shutout in his NHL debut.

As you can see, there were some jitters to start, but the native of Elmhurst, Illinois gained full control of himself from there. A couple of easier shots came his way to get him in the groove of things, and when his first big test game, he was more than ready.

Suddenly, twenty minutes were off the books, and thanks to a bit of goal support from Leo Komarov, he had further pressure removed from where he started at opening puck drop. The Oilers kept chucking pucks his way, and he kept stopping them. As Mike Babcock said after the game, Sparks was very “6-3” throughout the night; not a nod to his height, but rather that he was he was chest out, head forward, with only the direction of his legs altering his North-South verticality. 

The Oilers, bless their souls, kept pressing, as a team with tons of theoretical offensive firepower would do. In a rare moment of vulnerability, a loose puck trickled into the crease, but Sparks used some of the stickwork he has from playing forward in his free time to get the puck just barely out of harms way.

Forty minutes down. When the game came back to life, Nazem Kadri tipped a shot in from the hashmarks to get the Leafs even closer to a victory, but suddenly, the game had a different focus; a shutout was on the line.

Thankfully for Sparks, the team did their best to keep the puck out of the zone, grabbing an empty netter before effectively playing keep away in the game’s dying minute. 

After the game, Sparks was already pretty emotional, but when he was told that he was the first in the team’s 98-year history to accomplish the feat, he broke down, even if just for a second.

It was an impressive night overall, and an example of a quality goaltending prospect standing up to pressure rather than crumbling under it. Babcock intends to reward him for his efforts if he’s still necessary to the roster, though if James Reimer is able to play on Wednesday, he’ll get the nod instead.

Either way, not a bad debut for a player months removed from levels of self-doubt from two leagues below.

  • FlareKnight

    Not a bad debut at all. Congrats to Sparks. He played well, stepped up in the moments he needed to and got his shutout. Has to be an incredible moment. Just his first NHL game would be insane, but to win and get a shutout….unbelievable day for him.

    And yeah, Leafs got the job done. Not a bad game to relax and enjoy.

  • Gary Empey

    Once again the Oiler fans suffer the agony of defeat.

    Looks like the goaltending controversy is over.

    Roman Polak played top minutes for the Leafs 21:42(Steitzer wakeup, Babcock knows what he is doing)

    What happened to those arrogant Oiler fans anyways? It is time for them to man up and admit their team is in 30th place overall for a very good reason.

    Edit–I just checked over at Oiler Nation. The consensus there seems to be just what we told them before the game. “Oilers Suck”

  • TGT23

    Heck of a debut from the kid. Looking forward to see him go again.

    I mean, yes his technique fell apart once or twice and he did some of that James Reimer snow angel save thing, and the rebound control was okay though he did fight the puck once or twice, but considering the level of nerves he must have been feeling… He responded incredibly well.

    I don’t think the important part of this is a 24 save shutout. I mean, that’s great and all, but it’s more the poise and ability to keep self-contained and not panic too much when things looked like they could have started going south that interested me about him.

    He played a very solid game. I don’t think he was tested too much but he handled his nerves and did more than should be expected for a debut.

    Good game, kid. Looking forward to seeing another.

    Oh, also, good game Uncle Leo, Nazem, and JVH. 5 combined points for them on the night. Love it.

  • TGT23

    Christmas is inching closer, so nice to have a Frank Capra production this evening with young Garret Sparks reviving the Jimmy Stewart role of George Bailey.

    A wonderful moment for this emotional young goalie. It indeed does appear that the leafs have got themselves another young goalie prospect.

    I got to admit that Mr. 1 and 19 looks fantastic in a leaf ball cap on the bench.

    Uncle Leo thriving under Babcock as he plays a 200 foot game and is out scoring Phil the thrill.

    Got to give the Oilers credit for their determination to once again get the number one pick. Kind of the antithesis of the Golden State warriors as they are indeed on a long losing streak of being able to announce once a year in mid June that they are number one at the draft.

  • Kanuunankuula

    Garret Sparks played a great game last night for a rookie’s first game in the NHL and the pressure he must have been under.It was his night to shine and he did and I was very happy to see a solid game by this young man with the exception of a couple of bobbles due in my opinion to nerves.

    I am not taking anything away from him and was very happy to see him go down in Leafs history for what he accomplished but Leafs Nation don’t you think it’s a little bit early to be running polls to see if he is a starter or not?

    Let’s not ruin this kid like we have so many others in the past.Take it slow and easy and give him the support he needs while honouring his accomplishments.He’s off to a very good start but let’s take the time and see where it goes from here.

  • Gary Empey

    Like I said in the other post, This couldn’t have happened to a better person. What Sparks has gone through to get to this point is surely amazing. To think he was demoted to the ECHL because the Marlies lined Gibson instead of him except Gibson wasn’t better. But he took the Demotion as Motivation and improved his game and made a positive out the opportunity & turned it into a positive. I’m proud of Garrett. btw why is there posts about Sparks today? It’s a bit of an overkill don’t you think?