Fresh faces giving Canucks a lift

Photo: Abbotsford Canucks

📝 by Patrick Williams

Thanks to some phone calls, the Abbotsford Canucks are finding a way to pull out wins and making some new friends along the way.

Led by a goal from newcomer Yushiroh Hirano and another solid start in net from another new face in goaltender Joe Murdaca, the Canucks completed a two-game sweep of the visiting San Diego Gulls on Sunday evening with a 4-2 win. Three consecutive wins have Abbotsford (14-12-3-1, .533) with a grip on sixth place in the Pacific Division, four points up on San Diego.

Abbotsford faced some headwinds going into the weekend against the Gulls, who have been dealing with their own roster issues and dressed 16 skaters in both games. The Canucks were without two of their top scorers in Sheldon Dries and Justin Bailey, departed on recalls to the parent Vancouver Canucks.

With San Diego shorthanded, Abbotsford head coach Trent Cull wanted his team to attack, and they did just that.

“It was part of the recipe we want to have, for sure,” Cull said after Sunday’s win. “Because we know that team was short-staffed this weekend, and we’ve been a part of that on the other side of that where we’ve been short-staffed. Especially in the second period, we could turn the tide against a really tired team and try to wear them down, and I thought we did a really good job of that.”

Before his promotion to Abbotsford on Jan. 5 from Cincinnati of the ECHL, Hirano had played just one American Hockey League game back in the 2018-19 season with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. The sturdy 26-year-old native of Tomakomai, Japan ― just the second Japanese-born and -trained player ever to play in the AHL ― scored his first career AHL goal in Abbotsford’s 5-3 win on Saturday and has caught the eye of Cull, who has slotted him on a line with Nic Petan and Sheldon Rempal.

Photo: Abbotsford Canucks

In 25 games this season with Cincinnati, Hirano led the team with 16 goals.

“[Hirano has] done a great job,” Cull said. “So it’s nice to have these guys [who] are desperate to do whatever they can to stay here and be a part of it.”

Hirano, who owns an excellent shot and recorded six shots Sunday, and his new teammates are meshing already.

“I had a good talk with him a few nights ago,’’ said Abbotsford forward Phil Di Giuseppe, who chipped in two assists in the first win against the Gulls. “Interesting kid, interesting story. He’s from Japan, born and raised, and to get to this level is impressive. I’m sure it’s not an easy path.”

The Abbotsford net also has been picked apart lately. Goaltenders Michael DiPietro, Spencer Martin, and Arturs Silovs all were unavailable for duty in Abbotsford on Sunday. So it would be Murdaca in net for the rematch against San Diego with Trinity Western University goaltender Talor Joseph serving as an emergency backup.

Murdaca, 23, has had a wandering journey through hockey’s lower professional leagues, including one game each with three different ECHL clubs this season. Last week, a phone call came from Abbotsford general manager Ryan Johnson, who also doubles as Vancouver’s senior director of player development. Abbotsford needed a goaltender, Murdaca was his choice, and a professional tryout deal was signed Jan. 17 just before the team’s road game against the Ontario Reign.

“[It was] probably the best call I’ve ever received in my hockey career yet,” said Murdaca, still clad in Acadie-Bathurst gear from his 2017-18 stint in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. “Bouncing around, not having a contract, you kind of [have] to play with old gear. And, you know, I thought this [mask] brought me a lot of good luck.”

After allowing three goals on 16 San Diego shots on Saturday, Murdaca returned with 19 stops Sunday to earn second-star honors.

“We’re happy for him,” defenseman Ashton Sautner said of Murdaca. “I just met him for the first time. He’s a very upbeat guy. He loves to compete, you can tell. We’re just super happy for him. He played great.”

After Vincent Arseneau’s goal took the game to 2-2 on Sunday, Hirano’s effort set up Abbotsford’s game-winner. His work along the boards prevented a San Diego clearing attempt, and seconds later he gained position near the far post and poked Rempal’s rebound past Gulls goaltender Francis Marotte for his second goal in as many nights.

Owning a 4-2 lead going into the final two minutes of regulation, back-to-back minor penalties left the Canucks in a bind. San Diego had already pulled Marotte for a sixth skater, giving the Gulls a 6-on-3 advantage for 1:28.

But Murdaca and the Canucks stared down a San Diego power play that featured Brayden Tracey, Bo Groulx, Lucas Elvenes, Bryce Kindopp, Kodie Curran, and Nikolas Brouillard. Murdaca stopped a right-circle one-timer from Groulx while Sautner blocked a Curran shot. Elvenes then had a promising shot-pass attempt into the slot blocked by Madison Bowey, and Murdaca left no shooting space for another Groulx attempt from the bottom of the right circle. Tracey then had open ice in the high slot and pounded a shot that Murdaca steered aside before Bowey blocked still another attempt from Groulx to close out the win.

Photo: Abbotsford Canucks

“It’s a simple game out there,” Murdaca said, crediting his teammates. “These guys make it a lot easier for me to see the puck, for me to make plays. I felt a lot calmer and more relaxed out there [Sunday]. These guys are awesome, and they just help me to do my job.”

The contributions from Hirano and Murdaca have caught the attention of the Abbotsford leadership core and the rest of the roster.

“We were short bodies for the last couple of weeks,” Canucks defenseman Noah Juulsen said. “We got these guys, we called them up, they’ve come here, and they’ve done a great job.

“It’s not easy coming in trying to figure out our team system and so on. They’ve come in every day with great attitudes and showing that they’re here to work, and it’s shown on the ice. They’re figuring out everything that they’re being taught, and it’s helping.”

In turn, they have made Abbotsford a welcoming place for these new faces.

Said Murdaca, “Bouncing around, meeting new teammates, it’s difficult. But getting this opportunity just means it just helps in my head so much that I can actually play, I can actually do this, and it’s going to be huge for moving forward.”