Written by Judd Spicer
Welcome to the inevitable.
Sure, the Firebirds’ had wings against the ropes and were readily tested by the Colorado Eagles in Round 2 of the Calder Cup Playoffs before authoring a dominating and deciding Game 5 win. But those who have nested amongst the ‘Birds all inaugural season long surely felt, sensed, anticipated and vibed that a worthy and deserved postseason collision course was destined to cross paths with the Calgary Wranglers, the only team in the American Hockey League to have bested CV’s 103 points at the close of this debut campaign.
By virtue of winning the Pacific Division and earning a first-round playoff bye, Calgary roped directly into the second round, where the Wranglers defeated Abbottsford in four games. The Firebirds, following a decisive Game 3 victory over Tucson in the opening round, came back from a 2-1 series deficit versus Colorado to win the final two games at Acrisure Arena and advance to the Pacific finals.
Among the league’s eight remaining teams, CV and Calgary get their best-of-five Pacific Division Finals series underway on Thursday, May 11 at Calgary (6:05 p.m. Pacific) with Game 2 featuring a back-to-back at Calgary on May 12 (6:05). The showdown then returns to the desert with Game 3 on Monday, May 15 (7:00 p.m. Pac), with Games 4 and 5 (if necessary) slated for Wed. the 17th and Friday the 19th, respectively, also at Acrisure at 7:00.
Regular Season Rivals
The CV and Calgary rivalry was one narrated by nascence.
Just as the Firebirds flew with aplomb as an expansion franchise, the Wranglers relocated North of the Border this season after seven years of serving as the Calgary Flames’ AHL affiliate in Stockton, Calif.
On-ice, the franchises were no doubt aiming to impress their new homes.
Across eight regular season meetings, each team won four contests. The ‘Birds left the nest early, opening the season nearly seven months ago with back-to-back franchise debut wins over the Wranglers on October 16 and 17, 2022. Later that month, Calgary responded with a two-game split on October 28 and 29, with the games played at the ‘Birds makeshift Washington state home ices of the Angel of the Winds Arena and the Kraken Community Iceplex.
A pair of late November games saw a split in Calgary, before a pair of 3-1 Wranglers’ victories at Acrisure on March 1st and April 5th served among the mere seven regular season home regulation losses the ‘Birds suffered all season.
Per the latter, CV undoubtedly remembers what proved a rare, but crucial home ice defeat, as an inverse outcome would have put the Firebirds in the driver’s seat to capture first place in the Pacific and control their own destiny for the first-round bye.
For further evidence of the teams’ taut action, Calgary owned but a 29-27 scoring edge over CV across the eight games.
Year of the Wolf
The focus on the series rests squarely between the pipes, with the showdown featuring the two best goaltenders in the AHL.
Calgary’s 22-year-old Dustin Wolf was, in short, spectacular this season; actually, for the past two seasons. Named the recipient of the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Award as the league’s best goalie for the second consecutive year, Wolf further filled his mantle by subsequently being honored with the Les Cunningham Award as the league’s Most Valuable Player. The first netminder to be named the AHL’s MVP since Jason LaBarbera in 2004, Wolf is the league’s youngest MVP winner since Jason Spezza in ’05.
The numbers bear out the accolades: In a league-high 55 games this season (no other goalie even had 50), Wolf’s claws held opponents to a mere 2.09 Goals Against Average; coupled with his seven shutouts, both stats were good for best in the AHL. In tune, Wolf earned 42 wins on the season, a number even more impressive when considering that Springfield’s Joel Hofer finished second in said category . . . with fifteen fewer victories.
Coming in third place in the Wins column was Firebirds’ goalie Joey Daccord, who, in part due to being called up thrice by the Seattle Kraken, played 17 fewer games than Wolf. CV’s most consistently-stellar player throughout the year, Daccord’s 2.38 Goals Against charted fifth in the league, as did his 0.918 Save Percentage.
In starting all eight playoff games for Coachella Valley, Daccord has only gotten more impressive; in the last three games of the Colorado series, he allowed just four goals, highlighted by a shutout victory in Game 5.
Inversely, across the four games with Abbottsford, Wolf did show some wiggle; while he earned the three series wins, he allowed multiple goals in every contest and his 0.917 Save Percentage charts just 12th in the AHL among goalies with at least two playoff starts.
Kill or Be Killed
While Wolf’s numbers played a massive part in Calgary allowing an AHL-low 174 Goals Against this season, the Wranglers play on the Penalty Kill was equally superb.
Sporting a league-best 85.1% Kill clip in the regular season, Calgary was somehow even more impressive in the Abbottsford series, allowing a mere goal in 18 times shorthanded; conversely, the 94.4 percent Kill mark leads the Calder Cup Playoffs.
To counter, CV will need to capitalize with the man advantage, and better the solid 24.2 Power Play percentage the ‘Birds authored across the first two rounds.
In searching for scoring personnel against Wolf, CV need not look far.
By virtue of fleshing-out both series in the first two rounds, CV’s eight games played finds four Firebirds among the league’s top-five playoff scorers. Winger Kole Lind leads the Calder Cup Playoffs with 11 total points, while Coachella captain Max McCormick has an AHL playoff-best five goals. CV center Alexander True – he of the Game 4 shorthanded game-winner against Colorado – has netted four postseason goals to match with four assists, while standout rookie Ryker Evans has contributed a goal and eight playoff assists, the latter of which is tops (tied) in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
In its four games against Abbottsford, nary a Wrangler scored more than two goals.
As the CV home crowd witnessed in the April 5 loss, Calgary plays a frustrating style: cluttering passing lanes, busying the neutral zone and forechecking with confidence. In concert, while the Wranglers don’t roster the same firepower as the Firebirds, CV will need to be ever-mindful of diminutive, speedy and opportunistic AHL First Team All-Star Matthew Phillips, who led Calgary with 76 points on the season, and scored five goals coupled with seven assists in the eight games against the ‘Birds this year.
Now playoff tested and proven after winning a trio of elimination games on its Acrisure ice, the Firebirds have evolved their speedy style of play into a more necessary blend of physical action.
Considering the stout netminding on both ends, goals look to be a minimum, meaning CV’s stable of physical defenders – Brogan Rafferty, Eddie Wittchow, Gustav Olofsson, Matt Tennyson and NHL star-to-be Evans – all need to be at their very best in securing loose pucks, finishing checks and keeping scorers away from Daccord’s crease.
Peppering Wolf will prove another CV key. As Coachella has sought to replace the scoring prowess of injured Andrew Poturalski and John Hayden, along with Kraken-promoted forwards Jesper Froden and Tye Kartye, the Firebirds may have found an answer in Jeremy McKenna. With seven points in eight playoff games – including a spectacular opening goal in Game 5 against Colorado – McKenna is rising at just the right time to prove an X-factor as the ‘Birds look to extend their magical run to the Western Conference Finals.
Akin to the Colorado series, starting with a pair of back-to-back games on the road will find the ‘Birds well-placed by grabbing one away game and then returning to the desert to make the series a best-of-three on home ice, where a continually-invested Acrisure crowd is helping will the Firebirds onward.
This is the series head coach Dan Bylsma and his crew have been readying for all season long, and the ‘Birds undoubtedly haven’t forgotten how they were dominated in the last contest. Having shown resilience and fortitude throughout the year following rare let-downs, Coachella Valley is playing with a belief that isn’t ready to be denied.
Prediction: Firebirds win in five games.