Sat Nov 03 02:25am EDT
GUELPH, Ont. — Garret Sparks hopes all roads lead to a role for him with the Toronto Maple Leafs one day. On Friday, the front of his net was as snarled as the roads out of the GTA are at rush hour — which is exactly how the 19-year-old likes it.
From a team perspective, the Guelph Storm prefer it when their workhorse goalie does not have to make 44 saves like he did in the nationally televised 4-1 win over the Oshawa Generals. In the grand scheme, though, facing a torrent of vulcanized rubber isn't the worst fate for a goalie with world junior tournament aspirations. Playing on a defensively taut team that typically allows only 20 to 25, mostly from the outskirts of the offensive zone, might make it look too easy. Performances such as Friday's indicate Sparks, when he's on, could give Team USA an alternative to returning goalie John Gibson next month at the WJC in Ufa, Russia.
So please, clog the crease and keep firing, OHL opponents.
"World juniors is the best of the best and I've love to play in it," Sparks said. "It's games like these matter, the ones you're probably not supposed to win.
You look at last year and at that Czech [Republic team] with [Detroit Red Wings prospect] Petr Mrazek, they won games they probably shouldn't have. This was a good test and the tournament would be another step up."
It was as if Friday was Sparks' personal Super showcase. The Elmhurst, Ill., native will be a spectator next Thursday when Guelph hosts Game 3 of the Subway Super Series, with teammates Matt Finn and Zack Mitchell playing for Team OHL. Stoning the Generals and OHL scoring leader Boone Jenner, a potential returnee for Team Canada, provided more than adequate proxy.
"If that Super Series was for American kids as well, he could obviously be in the game," Finn, a Leafs second-rounder, said of Sparks. "He helped us win tonight. That's the way he plays. The whole team's been up and down offensively and defensively, we've scored eight goals and we've been scored against eight times. It's early and once that ball starts rolling for him, this could be a really special year."
Sparks was probably well-screened on more than half of the 45 shots he faced; he never saw the puck on Oshawa's only goal. He also outright robbed fellow Leafs prospect and fellow Team USA hopeful Tyler Biggs twice, including an aggressive slide out to nix a point-blank chance in the second period. (Biggs did ring the post in the same period.) Some goalies would have been thrown off by the volume of traffic, but the 6-foot-2, 213-pound Sparks gave as well as he received.
"Oshawa threw a lot of people in front on those power plays, but I like to be physical in front and keep my area under control," Sparks said, noting that his buddy in blue and white, Biggs, was one of the regular personal space violators.
"I gave him [Biggs] a few shots, but once we're off the ice, we're good friends."
Sparks' 3.58 average and .904 save percentage is not among the OHL's leaders. The Storm rely on him to an extent — backup Jason Da Silva has made only three relief appearances through the first quarter of the season — that defies consistency. In Guelph's past four games, he's actually alternated early exits with first-star selections.
However, the aforementioned Mrazek, the top goalie at last season's world junior, was often labelled as inconsistent last season with the Ottawa 67's. It's not a deal-breaker for Sparks, especially since Gibson is the favourite to be the starter.
"When Sparksy focuses, he's tough to beat," Storm coach Scott Walker said Friday night. "A lot of people probably enjoyed that game."
Along with being the Sportsnet Friday Night Hockey game of the week, the Storm's win was also shown in the U.S. on NHL Network, meaning Sparks' friends home in the Chicago area could see him play.
"It's great to have that stage, that's what you want. We showed everyone why we are what we are."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.