Written by Judd Spicer
In an inaugural season full of franchise firsts, the Coachella Valley Firebirds are readying for a last.
With a turn of the calendar to April, the ‘Birds head to the final month of the regular season, seeking to turn a sterling debut year into a deep Calder Cup playoff run. Heading into CV’s Friday, March 31 game at Ontario, the Firebirds appear back on track following a funky mid-month road trip in which the club lost three consecutive games in regulation for the first time all year.
Yet, after rebounding with back-to-back convincing home wins, CV sits four points back of Pacific Division-leading Calgary, which has played two more games to-date than the Firebirds.
With just nine regular season games to play – six on their home ice — the ‘Birds are no doubt eyeing a crucial, upcoming home battle versus the Wranglers on Wednesday, April 5.
Following the Firebirds’ 7-3 home win over Henderson on March 25, the squad appeared poised to pen a palpable final chapter to the inaugural year.
“The recent road trip was obviously a pretty brutal one, in terms of travel and games and our bodies,” said winger Carsen Twarynski. “As Dan (Bylsma) told us before the game tonight, it’s kind of a good thing that we’re in the spot we are this week, because we’ve had a very good year and have always been able to rally; so, to have the losing stretch where we weren’t playing our best at all, it’s kind of good to have that before the playoffs and show that we have to reply from some adversity.”
Finding flight after a loss has been a consistent theme across the Firebirds’ season.
“I think we were frustrated as a group,” Kole Lind, the team leader in goals (27), said of the sour March road trip. “And sometimes that going to happen; I’d rather it happen now than 15 games from now when we’re in the middle of the playoffs. Battling through a little adversity never hurts a team; I think in this case it helps us grow together even better.”
Echoed forward Austin Poganski:
“We did have a couple bumps in the road, but I actually think it was good for us to kinda’ step back and make sure we’re not getting complacent, make sure we’re playing the right way.”
Grabbing the Pacific’s top spot, and the accompanying first-round playoff bye, is about more than just a single season.
“I think that’s in everybody’s mind as a goal,” Twarynski added. “Especially in our first year, if we can go out and get a banner for that, not only does it give us confidence and show how good we are, it sets the bar high, the standards high for this organization for years to follow.”
Such a purview skates from the bench on down.
“The guys have done a great job all year winning hockey games, so when you go through a situation where you’ve lost a few in row, it’s an oddity,” head coach Dan Bylsma said after the ‘Birds returned to the win column on March 25th. “But it can’t be easy for your team all year long; you can’t just win 67 games and think you’re the greatest team in the world. We got punched in the face a bit last week, and I thought tonight was an opportunity for our guys to respond in kind. And they did in a great way.”
For Bylsma, the campaign isn’t speed skating, but rather about endurance.
“Every team has a journey in their season, and every team is trying to get to their best, the head coach added. “And you don’t get there unless you’re challenged. I would be more worried if we didn’t have some adversity. These guys have to learn and grow and believe in a certain way to play and a certain way to win – and you need to be challenged to get that growth.”
Among key metric to be eyed as the postseason grows near, Bylsma likes to see the puck on the opponent’s end of the ice.
“I think a real good indicator for us is the offensive zone time; that is an indication is how we’ve played, and if we’ve played the right way,” he said. “Our team knows that you win the game in the offensive zone, and, of course, that also means that the other team can’t score a goal when you’re playing in their zone. We’ve been great all year long in that regard, with games of 5, 6 or 7-plus minutes in the offensive zone over the opposition. And that’s probably the one indicator I look at all the time.”
Following a near-spotless 5-1 victory over Bakersfield on March 29, the Firebirds appeared in playoff-primed form.
“We’ve been one of the best teams all year, and I don’t think we need to mix things up; we just need to stick to the process and good things will happen,” said goalie Joey Daccord, recently returned from an emergency, two-game stint with the Seattle Kraken. “We’ve been very process-oriented all season, and if we stick to that and play the way we know we can play, our team feels like we can beat anybody in this league.”
While the Acrisure Arena faithful appear ever-ready to see a season of unveils translate to the franchise’s first playoff win, those donning Firebirds’ sweaters aren’t quite ready to dream that far ahead . . . at least not for another nine games.
“We haven’t looked that far ahead in terms of the crowd. But as a team, we all recognize how great our fans are,” concluded Daccord. “And that’s not being cliché – we probably have the best fans in the AHL, which is really cool. I still remember the atmosphere in our first game here; it was deafening the whole game, and maybe 95 percent of the people had no idea what was going on but they loved it. If we even get a sliver of that for playoffs, it’s gonna’ be a tough place for other teams to come in and try to beat us. This is a special place, and it’s been a special season so far.”