Per usual, the last day of the regular season has already provided a flurry of activity. Recalls abound as teams heading to the playoffs rest their starters and those remaining teams, with nothing left to play for, begin to take a look ahead with some new additions to the lineup. However, one move already today is an outlier: the Toronto Maple Leafs have announced an emergency call-up of goaltender Garret Sparks from the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.
The move comes not as a luxury, but as a necessity. The Leafs may have the most important game of the day, as they get set to square off with the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight with major playoff seeding implications on the line. A regulation loss and Toronto faces the Washington Capitals in the first round, a match-up many consider to be a quick elimination for any team, as the Eastern Conference’s second wild card team. If they are able to pick up even one point, Toronto leap frogs the Boston Bruins and gets to play the rival Ottawa Senators in the Atlantic Division pairing. So who will be in net for this big game? It won’t be starter Frederik Andersen. Andersen left yesterday’s game, a playoff-clinching win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, early due to injury and will not suit up tonight. It remains unclear what kind of condition Andersen is in, having been pulled due to injury twice in recent weeks, but Toronto will play it safe with their starter. Curtis McElhinney will get the call instead today against his former team, and played admirably in relief of Andersen yesterday, but has not played in back-to-back games all season.
Cue Sparks, who may end up seeing the ice in relief in one of the most important games of the season for a team he has yet to appear with in 2016-17. With Jhonas Enroth the backup in Toronto earlier this season, a brief reprieve by Antoine Bibeau, and then the subsequent claim of McElhinney, Sparks has not had the opportunity to take the ice for the Maple Leafs this season. Could that change tonight? Sparks started 17 games for Toronto last year, and while his .893 save percentage and 3.02 goals against average were unspectacular, Sparks played relatively well for a 22-year-old. This season with the Marlies, Sparks has been exemplary despite sharing the net with Bibeau, recording a .926 SV% and 2.07 GAA in 29 appearances. Sparks has shown that he deserves another shot at the NHL, but will he get that chance tonight? Could Andersen’s injury be worse than indicated and afford Sparks a playoff roster spot? That all remains to be seen, but what’s clear is that, at least for now, Toronto needs depth in net for a big game and Sparks is the guy to provide it.