Abbotsford Canucks players Yushiroh Hirano and Joe Murdaca emerged as stars over the weekend after two wins over the San Diego Gulls. (Ben Lypka/Abbotsford News)

Abbotsford Canucks players Yushiroh Hirano and Joe Murdaca emerged as stars over the weekend after two wins over the San Diego Gulls. (Ben Lypka/Abbotsford News)

Abbotsford Canucks sweep San Diego on home stand

Recent signee Joe Murdaca records two wins, Yushiroh Hirano adds two goals

Some likely and unlikely heroes emerged for the Abbotsford Canucks in the team’s pair of wins over the San Diego Gulls on Saturday (Jan. 22) and Sunday (Jan. 23).

The likely – forwards John Stevens and Sheldon Rempal

The unlikely – goalie Joe Murdaca and forward Yushiroh Hirano

Murdaca and Hirano are both relatively new additions to the team, with Murdaca signed on Jan. 17 to help the Canucks organization battle a COVID-19 situation that is tearing through netminders in both the NHL and AHL.

Saturday was Murdaca’s first-ever AHL game and the 23-year-old has only played six career games in the ECHL. This season he’s played one game with the Wheeling Nailers, Cincinnati Cyclones and Atlanta Gladiators.

With Vancouver’s Thatcher Demko and Jaroslav Halak both in COVID protocol, the NHL club called up both Spencer Martin and Michael DiPietro from Abbotsford. Those moves left the AHL club with only Arturs Silovs under contract, necessitating the need to add Murdaca.

The goalie picture got even more murky on Sunday when it was revealed that Martin and Silovs also both tested COVID-19 positive. That forced Vancouver to sign UBC goalie Rylan Toth and Abbotsford to sign TWU goalie Talor Jospeh to amateur try out agreements to be back-ups at games on Sunday.

Despite all the weirdness going on, Murdaca started both games and picked up back-to-back wins against the Gulls. He made 13 saves on Saturday and 19 saves on Sunday to earn the victories. Abbotsford won 5-3 on Saturday and 4-2 on Sunday.

He told media on Saturday that it’s been a memorable week.

“That’s probably the best call I’ve ever received in my hockey career,” he said, noting Abbotsford general manager Ryan Johnson first contacted him on Jan. 15.

Murdaca met up with the team in Ontario prior the Canucks game against the Reign that day and flew back to Abbotsford with the team on Jan. 18.

Since then it’s been practices, practices and more practices as he settles into his new role.

“Lots of staying on the ice and taking extra shots and just getting myself ready and improving my game,” he said.

He was also somewhat aware he may be getting the call on Saturday.

“I was told to be ready to play,” he said. “I was pretty pumped up when I was told I was playing.”

Murdaca, who was wearing his old Acadie-Bathurst Titan QMJHL goalie helmet, praised his defence, which allowed him to see the puck and limited opportunities. He also had his nerves calmed a lot when Hirano scored just 10 seconds into Saturday’s game.

That goal made history, as it was the first goal ever scored in the AHL by a Japanese-born player. Hirano added another goal on Sunday.

Stevens had a big offensive game on Saturday with two goals and one assist and added a helper on Sunday. Rempal was the first star on Sunday with one goal and one assist.

Abbotsford’s defensive play was excellent, as they limited the Gulls to just 16 shots on Saturday and 21 on Sunday. The Canucks fired 32 on the Gulls net on Saturday and 40 on Sunday.

“It feels great to get the win,” Murdaca said on Sunday. I’m just trying to give these guys a chance to win every night. It’s all about being in the right position to make the right saves to limit rebounds. The guys in front of me make it a lot easier for me, making sure I can see the puck and making plays.”

Defenceman Noah Juulsen has also been on an offensive tear. The Abbotsford product collected five assists over the two games and is riding a five-game point streak. He has two goals and eight assists in his past 10 AHL games.

Saturday’s goal scorers included Hirano, Ashton Sautner, Stevens (two) and Will Lockwood. Abbotsford was in control for most of the game, but San Diego did tie the game at two late in the second. That tie was short lived as Stevens made it 3-2 with a goal at 19:01 of the second.

Sunday saw offensive production from Chase Wouters, Vincent Arseneau, Hirano and Rempal. Abbotsford trailed 1-0 and 2-1 in the game, but scored three times in the second period to secure the win.

“Part of the recipe for success was strong o-zone play and I felt like we did that,” said Canucks head coach Trent Cull after Sunday. “We knew that San Diego was short-staffed this weekend and that’s a difficult situation. We turned the tide in the second period, and we tried to wear them down. I thought we did a really good job of that today.”

The Canucks next head to Winnipeg for games against the Manitoba Moose on Saturday (Jan. 29) and Sunday (Jan. 30). The next home games occur on Feb. 3 and 4 when the Stockton Heat come to the Abbotsford Centre.

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