BUFFALO—Garret Sparks couldn’t be blamed if he exhaled a few times in relief as the Leafs’ bus headed back to Toronto on Wednesday night.
The Leafs’ backup goaltender had just finished the most pressure-packed game of his season, days after attracting all manner of attention for calling out his team during a rough week that included losses to Tampa Bay, Chicago and Ottawa.
While Sparks might have been accurate when suggesting his teammates needed to play with more emotion, he may have stepped beyond his role.
“I expect him to play well,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said prior to Wednesday’s game. “If you’re the goalie and you play and your team doesn’t win, if you own it, you can fix that. Any time you are looking for any other help in life, it doesn’t usually go your way. Just own what you do and play as hard as you can … We’re going to play hard for Sparky and he’s going to play well.”
Sparks didn’t face the toughest of opponents — the Sabres managed just 24 shots — but he didn’t allow any soft goals in the Leafs’ 4-2 win.
He might have overplayed the Sabres’ first goal, but there was little else to be critical of in his game. Alex Nylander beat him in the third, with a laser beam snap shot to the top corner.
Otherwise, Sparks was quietly efficient, which was exactly what the Leafs needed after losing four of their previous five games. He improved to 8-7-1 in 18 appearances this season.
The setting may have been favourable for both the Leafs and Sparks: Toronto was facing a team that is fighting a losing battle to make the playoffs. The Leafs took all four games from the Sabres this season, the first time since 1987 that Buffalo has gone winless against Toronto.
- Johnsson hurt? Leafs winger Andreas Johnsson took a heavy hit into the boards from Casey Nelson late in the third period. Johnsson, clearly shaken, left for the dressing room but returned after missing just a single shift. The Leafs already have injuries to Jake Gardiner (back), Travis Dermott (shoulder) and Frederik Gauthier (foot).
- First-period woes: Sabres centre Casey Mittelstadt opened the scoring with a power-play goal in the first period. The Leafs have now been outscored 10-1 in the opening period over their last six games.
- Feeding on the bottom: The win upped the Leafs’ record to 27-7-4 against teams outside the playoffs. Against teams currently in a playoff position, Toronto is 17-18-1. Two of their final eight games are against teams currently holding a playoff berth (the Islanders and Tampa Bay). Those two games should gauge how ready the Leafs are for the playoffs.