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Maple Leafs to start rookie Sparks against Sharks

by Mike Brophy

SHARKS (15-14-1) at MAPLE LEAFS (10-13-6)


TORONTO -- Goaltending continues to be the focus for the Toronto Maple Leafs as they prepare to host the San Jose Sharks at Air Canada Centre on Thursday.

Rookie Garret Sparks will get the start, Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock announced, after Jonathan Bernier lost 5-4 in overtime against the Tampa Bay Lightning at home on Tuesday.

Bernier, who is 0-8-2 this season with a 3.45 goals-against average and .881 save percentage, made his return to the NHL after serving a two-week conditioning stint in the American Hockey League with the Toronto Marlies during which he went 3-1-0 with three shutouts.

James Reimer, who earned the starter's role after beginning the season as Bernier's backup, continues to miss action with a lower-body injury.

"Pucks are going in so Sparks will start," Babcock said following practice on Wednesday.

Sparks, who began the season as the No. 2 goalie with the Marlies, will make his fifth NHL start. He had a shutout in his NHL debut on Nov. 30 and is 3-1-0 with a 2.20 GAA and .921 save percentage.

"It's just another opportunity," Sparks said. "Obviously it's a numbers game at this point and there are two good goalies ahead of me. Unfortunately James is injured at this point. I'm looking forward to it. I love playing hockey and getting starts."

Sparks said his confidence has grown in the three weeks he has been with the Maple Leafs. He added being on the ice with an NHL team daily has helped boost his level of play.

"I feel a lot more confident in my game now than I did in my first game," Sparks said. "I am taking things day-by-day. I just show up and compete and try to make myself and my teammates better. I challenge them and they challenge me. It's a good situation."

Babcock said he has had confidence in Sparks' ability and level of compete since he was summoned from the Marlies. He was given a positive scouting report from Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe.

"Three weeks ago I called Sheldon and he said, 'Don't worry about him, he's not scared of anything and he's going to be great,'" Babcock said. "He has gone 3-1 and a big part of it is the guys believe in him. When your guys believe they don't play nervous in their own zone and everyone does their own job. When the guys don't believe everyone is so busy doing somebody else's job that nobody is doing their own job."

The Sharks kicked off a five-game road trip Tuesday with a 3-1 win against the Montreal Canadiens, snapping a six-game losing streak. Coach Peter DeBoer said the Sharks are comfortable playing on the road for long stretches. They are 11-5-1 away from home this season.

"The group we have here has been doing it for 10 years," DeBoer said. "Between Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns, it's old hat for those guys. It was an adjustment for me coming from New Jersey. These guys are comfortable with the time changes and those sorts of things."

As the Sharks search for consistency, DeBoer said winning on the road is a huge help.

"We needed the win in Montreal," DeBoer said. "You're never as bad as you think you are and you're never as good as you think you are. With the six losses in a row we probably could have won at least half of those games. We were just finding ways to lose. Last time we were in this spot was a month ago and we went on the road and won six in a row."

Here are the projected lineups:


Tomas Hertl - Joe Thornton - Joe Pavelski

Melker Karlsson - Patrick Marleau - Joel Ward

Joonas Donskoi - Chris Tierney - Tommy Wingels

Matt Nieto - Dainius Zubrus - Mike Brown

Paul MartinBrent Burns

Marc-Edouard VlasicJustin Braun

Brenden DillonDylan DeMelo

Martin Jones

Alex Stalock

Injured: Logan Couture (right thigh), Ben Smith (concussion symptoms)

Scratched: Barclay Goodrow, Matt Tennyson


James van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - PA Parenteau

Shawn Matthias - Nazem Kadri - Leo Komarov

Daniel Winnik- Nick SpalingMichael Grabner

Peter Holland - Byron FroeseJoffrey Lupul

Jake Gardiner - Dion Phaneuf

Matt Hunwick - Morgan Rielly

Frank Corrado - Roman Polak

Garret Sparks

Jonathan Bernier

Injured: Stephane Robidas (groin), James Reimer (lower body)

Scratched: Martin Marincin, Brad Boyes

Status report: Hertl missed the game Tuesday with a lower-body injury, but is expected to play against the Maple Leafs. If he plays, Goodrow will likely be scratched.

Who's hot: Pavelski and Marleau have goals in two of their past three games. … Parenteau has points in three straight games. Van Riemsdyk has goals in back-to-back games. Bozak has points in three straight games. Polak has four assists in three games.

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