TORONTO - Garret Sparks is cherishing his role as the Toronto Marlies starting goaltender in the American Hockey League playoffs.

He says that it's been a long and, sometimes, drawn out process to reach this point, but the patience and dedication to improving himself feels like it's paying off.

"It hasn't always gone my way here and that's why I've been here five years, but I never really doubted I'd get an opportunity to get to this point if I put in the work," said the 24-year-old Sparks.

"It's nice to be rewarded with the starter's role for the first time. I really hadn't had an opportunity to play in that role for the Marlies. It's not for a lack of trying."

Sparks, who the Maple Leafs drafted in the seventh round in 2011, put together an impressive season in the AHL this year, going 31-9-3 with a 1.79 goals-against average and .936 save percentage en route to winning the goaltender of the year honours.

His 43 starts were a career high, with his first four seasons as a pro having some various setbacks that limited his ability to ever break through as the team's No. 1.

Injuries plagued him at some of the worst possible times, like early in his career when trying to make an impression with Orlando of the ECHL, or when he went down with a season-ending lower-body injury only two games into the 2017 AHL playoffs. He also missed time after receiving a three-game suspension from the team for his social media usage in 2016.

"Things that got in the way in the past weren't much more than personal shortcomings you had to work through. That takes time," said Sparks. "When I was in Orlando that whole year I drove 20 hours back (to Toronto) to get into Game 5 and didn't get an opportunity. The next year I come down from the NHL and I was passed over for (Antoine Bibeau).

"It doesn't matter if guys were ahead of me at certain points or if I've paid my dues, it doesn't matter now. What matters is I get an opportunity to compete and play for something real."

Sparks and the Marlies suffered back-to-back losses in the first round this year against the Utica Comets and were on the verge of elimination after two sub-par performances from Sparks. Head coach Sheldon Keefe could have turned to the more experienced Calvin Pickard in the deciding game of the series, but chose to stay with Sparks, who responded with a 37-save shutout victory to push his team into the second round.

"I had trust, he's earned that from his play all season," said Keefe. "It is a tough call because Pickard has been so outstanding for us and he's a great person and ready all the time, but Sparksy earned it."

In Keefe's three seasons as head coach, he has typically referred to his goalies as 1A and 1B, with no one taking over the No. 1 spot for any long stretch of time. Since making his debut with the Marlies in 2013, Sparks has outlasted other prospects in the system like Antoine Bibeau, Christopher Gibson and Mark Owuya while also sharing crease time with veterans Jeff Glass, Karri Ramo, Jhonas Enroth, Jonathan Bernier and Ray Emery, to name a few.

Sparks says that the addition of Pickard when Toronto claimed him off waivers in October only helped to make himself a better goalie despite the chance of another player getting in his way for ice time.

"I wouldn't have the personal accolades without the support from him throughout the year," said Sparks. "Just having an NHL-calibre goalie being your partner helps to sharpen you. You compete every day at practice with him. You have to be at your best."

Sparks made his NHL debut with the Leafs in Nov. 2015, a 3-0 shutout against the Edmonton Oilers. He would go on to play 17 games as Toronto went into rebuild mode and was just months away from drafting Auston Matthews and trading for goalie Frederik Andersen.

In his time with the Marlies, Sparks has gone 80-28-8 with a 2.12 GAA and .928 save percentage in 121 regular-season games.

The Marlies and Texas Stars are tied 1-1 in the Calder Cup final after splitting the first two games at Toronto's Ricoh Coliseum. The next three are on the road, with Game 3 scheduled for Tuesday.

"This entire ride's been an enjoyable time and I don't think the next few games will be any different," said Sparks. "I don't think we back away from challenges so it should be exciting, fun hockey on the road."