After 40 minutes of failing to pull away from the San Diego Gulls, the Abbotsford Canucks exploded for two goals in 47 seconds and added an empty netter to earn a crucial 5-2 win on Saturday (April 9).
Newly-signed Brannon McManus turned on the after burners and blew by the Gulls defence after a fortuitous bounce at 7:21 to break a 2-2 tie and Ashton Sautner pounced on a rebound to build a two-goal lead on the very next shift.
Matt Alfaro added a shorthanded empty net goal at 19:37 to kill any hope San Diego had of battling back.
Abbotsford’s Jarid Lukosevicius opened the scoring just 45 seconds into the game and that goal stood until 9:26 of the second when San Diego’s Hunter Drew scored his first of two power play goals. Defender-turned-forward Alex Kannok Leipert put the Canucks up 2-1 at 11:53 with a perfect tip off of a Guillaume Brisebois point shot. Drew’s second goal fooled Canucks goalie Michael DiPietro at 14:55.
The goal by Kannok Leipert was his first-ever American Hockey League goal. He said it was a nice feeling to pot the goal, especially after it appeared as though the refs were going to review it because of a possible high stick.
“I saw [Madison] Bowey and Brisebois pass it back and forth and I was just trying to stay in front,” he said. “As it was coming to me I kind of saw it coming high and and I kind of closed my eyes and felt it. Once I saw the guys coming towards me [to celebrate] I felt a sigh of relief.”
Head coach Trent Cull stated last week that he was pleased with how Kannok Leipert had adjusted from playing defence to forward. The player himself said his linemates and coaches have made it a smooth transition.
“Obviously it’s a lot more skating,” he said. “It’s a different mindset, but it’s been good. I think just being coachable and always being ready for the next challenge is a good thing for me.”
He noted that he’s also well aware when defenders try to pinch and he’s able to cover.
Sautner, who had a three-point night and was the game’s first star, said the third period was the difference.
“Maybe we didn’t have our best two periods,” he said. “But talking in the room we knew we were going to have to bear down and grab one out and we did. It’s a big character win for sure.”
The win was even more notable as the team was playing without its top three scores Sheldon Dries, Sheldon Rempal and Nic Petan. Dries and Petan remain with Vancouver and Rempal is battling an injury. Forward Will Lockwood is also with the big club and forwards Justin Bailey and Phil Di Giuseppe have not yet returned. The team also played Saturday without defenceman Noah Juulsen.
Sautner said he’s proud of the challenges the Canucks have faced and they seem to be peaking at the right time. Saturday, which saw attendance of 5,022, was the team’s fourth straight win.
“Every year every team has a story,” he said. “And for us you think about all the ups and downs, with COVID, injuries, and different guys have stepped up and played huge roles.”
Another player playing his best hockey of the season is DiPietro. He was the game’s third star and made 23 saves. He has fought back to earn a .500 record of 11-11-4. He’s 3-1-1 in his last five starts and has helped the Canucks with a late season push.
Saturday was also the final game for forward Yushiroh Hirano, who will be joining the Japanese national team at the IIHF Division 1 Group B World Championships in Tychy, Poland later this month. Hirano had one final lap following the game to thank the fans and he collected one assist in his final game.
Kannok Leipert said the team will miss Hirano.
“Ever since he’s been here he’s been a great guy,” he said. “That booming shot of his will be hard to replace but he was great to have around and we wish him the best of luck.”
Friday (April 8) was another strong game for the Canucks, as they defeated the Gulls 6-3 in a fight filled game.
Abbotsford got goals from John Stevens, McManus, Carson Focht, Jack Rathbone, Danila Klimovich and Chase Wouters. Alfaro, Hirano and Bowey had two assists apiece and Spencer Martin made 17 saves for his 18th win.
“A lot of credit to our players, they’re playing the right way... It’s not a question of who we’re missing, but who gets an opportunity."— X - Abbotsford Canucks (@abbycanucks) April 9, 2022
🗣️ Head Coach Trent Cull#AbbyCanucks pic.twitter.com/Jj9gsUDhu7
Friday’s crowd of 5,362 also saw four different players (Jett Woo, Bowey, Brandon Cutler and Juulsen) drop the gloves.
The wins were especially important as the Canucks remained ahead of the Bakersfield Condors, who beat the Colorado Eagles 6-5 on Saturday. Abbotsford continues to occupy the fourth spot, which would earn them home ice advantage in round one.
The team’s record is now 34-21-5-1 and they now hit the road for games against the San Jose Barracuda on Friday (April 15) and a massive game against the Condors on Saturday (April 16).