WBS Penguins Close Season With Win
WILKES-BARRE TWP. — Yushiroh Hirano made history just by stepping onto the Mohegan Sun Arena ice on Sunday.
He made even more once the puck dropped.
Hirano became the first born-and-raised Japanese player to record an AHL point when he assisted Cedric Lacroix’s third-period goal, and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins ended their 20th season on a high note with a 5-2 win over the Binghamton Devils. They finished the campaign at 36-30-7-3 and in sixth place in the Atlantic Division.
“That was awesome,” Hirano said. “I felt comfortable after the first 20 (minutes). It was nice. ... (I wanted to) play strong defense and play simple. I wasn’t afraid with my play, so it was a good point for me.”
Hirano is also only the second Japanese player to appear in the AHL, the first being goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji with the Manchester Monarchs.
The 23-year-old was invited to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s training camp back in the fall before making his ECHL debut with Wheeling on Oct. 20. He began his North American pro career with the reputation of having a cannon for a shot, but has since proved his game is much more refined. He scored 19 goals for the Nailers and also added 38 assists, finishing with a plus-8 rating.
“He made tremendous strides,” Wheeling head coach Mike Bavis said after practice on Wednesday. “He could always shoot, and that was kind of how he was labeled or identified. In terms of making plays for his linemates, (he was) more than a shooter on the power play. He was physical, People tried to step up on him, and he would just go right through them.”
Hirano showcased that physicality in Sunday’s game with a couple of big hits, including one on a forecheck in the first period that led to a scoring chance for linemate Cam Brown.
He nearly scored on two occasions. He got his assist when he fought off the Devils’ Colton White while driving to the net and fired a shot on goaltender Logan Thompson — making his AHL debut. The netminder made the stop, but the puck popped past him and Lacroix was there on the other side to bat it into the open cage with 10:30 remaining.
Later on, Hirano gloved a puck out of midair and tried to put it on net, but simply ran out of angle as he crossed the red line.
Speaking earlier in the week, Hirano was candid about how it took a while to adjust not only to the style of play in the United States, but also the culture in and out of the dressing room.
“When I first came here, American people like joking around a lot,” he said. “(In Japan), it’s more serious. I’d be like, ‘Why are these guys so aggressive?’ I feel I’m getting better. I had good teammates. They respected me, and we had good communication.”
That also helped him feel comfortable in this game. He was roommates with Lacroix during the ECHL season and played with him at different points, and the two were paired together on the fourth line. The chemistry was noticeable, as Lacroix had two goals and finished as the game’s first star.
Hirano’s goal is still to reach the NHL someday — again, Fukufuji was the only other Japanese player to do so — and he wants to improve his consistency on defense.
But in terms of what his point Sunday and success all season meant for all the Japanese players and fans rooting him on, he found it difficult to put into words.
“I think growing as a hockey player can also help (the growth) of Japanese hockey,” Hirano said. “I need to work on my defense. Then, I could succeed at the next level.”
Matt O’Connor made 31 saves in net for the Penguins, but the win was more than two years in the making. The 27-year-old’s last victory in the AHL was April 7, 2017 with the Binghamton Devils.
The 6-foot-6 O’Connor was a highly touted undrafted prospect out of Boston University. He signed with the Ottawa Senators and made his professional debut in 2015 on the grandest stage imaginable, opening night in the NHL, but that would be his only appearance at the top level.
After playing in 71 AHL games with Binghamton from 2015-17, the Ontario native bounced across four ECHL teams — appearing in no more six games for any — before finally finding a home all season with Wheeling in 2018-19. O’Connor went 11-10-1 with the Nailers and had a .905 save percentage.
“You can’t put a price on that,” O’Connor said. “As a goalie, the game is pretty mental, so it helps to get settled and have that stable relationship with your coach. I think, for me, it was just a great opportunity for me to lead down there. Something I’ve never really been able to do, so it allowed me to be someone to make sure we were bringing it every night. I’m very grateful for (Bavis) developing me throughout the season.”
O’Connor made a good early stop on Ryan Schmelzer in his game and was solid the rest of the way, bested only by a redirect in front and on a Devils power play. Penguins head coach Clark Donatelli said he liked his composure in net, and O’Connor is very nimble given his large frame.
It’s no secret the Penguins’ final two games served as auditions for many players heading into next season, but O’Connor said he didn’t want to focus on that too much as he tries to reestablish himself in the AHL.
“Goalies are like fish, they say,” he said. “You just try to look yourself in the mirror at the end of the season and know you did everything you could. Hopefully, there’s people that can use you.”
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