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LGD: The return of the Bernier v. Sparks debate

In 2015, the Toronto Maple Leafs had bottomed out about as much as they were going to in today’s NHL.

It took their starting goaltender until December 19th to record his first season win. They set a franchise record for number of single-season losses with a whopping fifty-three. And while the misery paid off in the end thanks to the team’s draft lottery win and subsequent Auston Matthews acquisition, it certainly wasn’t an easy year for the players themselves.

That starter who took over two months to win a game, of course, was Jonathan Bernier. And when he was out with injury – and then trying to get his game back with a conditioning stint on the Marlies – the team was limping through the Thanksgiving season with rookie goaltender Garret Sparks taking his place.

Now, almost three years to the day after Bernier took home that first win of the season, two of that season’s former backstops will get a chance to go head-to-head at long last.

It’s Matthews v. Larkin in the battle of the American-born team futures. It’s the return of Willie Nylander. And it’s the battle of Bernier v. Sparks in the face-off of the Survivors of the Lost Season.

LEAFS

The biggest news here is obviously the return of William Nylander, who will make his 2018-19 season debut.

The Leafs have managed to remain a powerful roster even without Nylander – and with his absence literally haunting his teammates’ dreams – but his addition should hopefully take them to the next level. Add in that people are thrilled to bits to finally see Connor Brown back on the fourth line, and it’s a lineup that the fans should be all kinds of ready for.

Not much to say about the defensive pairings, as always.

RED WINGS

This morning was an optional skate for the Red Wings, so no confirmation on their official lines. But while Toronto is gaining an asset, Detroit has been rapidly losing theirs.

The Red Wings are currently walking wounded, with both Danny DeKeyser and Anthony Mantha going down recently to leave them short-staffed. They’re also without noted shit disturber Tyler Bertuzzi, who is serving out a two-game ban for sucker-punching Colorado’s Matt Calvert earlier this week.

The Red Wings, in theory, should be terrible. Instead, they’ve been serviceable so far this year, holding their own and staying away from the league’s already-well-populated basement.

STARTING GOALIES

Both Sparks and Bernier are in a precarious position, and everyone always has something to say about them both.

Sparks, who had been the team’s hopeful, hardworking heir apparent when he was first recalled in 2015, took on a world of pressure when he recorded the team’s first rookie shutout in an NHL debut ever. When he couldn’t hold the club together through their miserable play, though, it earned him a banishment back to the AHL for over two more years. Now, he’s back, but under a microscope – and although he’s been on a tear as of late, people still turn on him at a moment’s notice.

Sparks has just one game against the Red Wings in his repertoire, and it certainly could have gone better. He allowed three goals on 26 shots against the divisional rivals in April of 2016, during his second and final call-up with Toronto at the end of the year. This year, though, he’s only had one loss and one ‘really bad start’ in five games, and he’s sitting on a .924 save percentage and counting. It’s his game to lose, really.

For Bernier, the Red Wings have expressed internal confidence in him after he was able to hold the Colorado Avalanche together last year during Jimmy Howard’s various injuries. This year, though, he’s either excellent or struggles significantly; he has four games with a .930 save percentage or better, one with a .905 save percentage, and four games with an .875 or worse. Depending on the Bernier the Leafs get, they could face an impenetrable brick wall or an easy win.

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