Written by Judd Spicer
The Coachella Valley Firebirds’ home of Acrisure Arena is built upon sand; a fine, abundant and crystalline sand which extends in wild bounds and hummocks and dunes across Varner Road on which Acrisure is housed and blows far beyond, defining the landscape of this desert home.
But come May of 2023, this is no longer viewed as simple sand. It’s something more. It’s something magnetic, something special and something which sparkles.
It’s magic dust. And it’s narrated both the improbable and the extraordinary.
What began as a tale of 32 American Hockey League teams is now but a story of four.
By virtue of an electric, deciding Game 5 overtime winner over fresh rival Calgary, the CV inaugural season extended a momentous step further, taking the Firebirds to the best-of-seven Western Conference Finals, where the Coachella Valley will face the Milwaukee Admirals, affiliate of the NHL’s Nashville Predators.
The winner’s prize? A ticket to the Calder Cup Finals, a trip never-before taken by a team west of Texas.
The 2-3-2 format gets underway on Thursday, May 25 at Acrisure Arena at 7:00 p.m. (Pacific) before the ‘Birds host Game 2 on Saturday the 27th (7:00). The series then turns to the Admirals’ UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena for Game 3 on Monday, May 29 (4:00 p.m. Pac), Game 4 on Thursday, June 1 (5:00 p.m.) and, if necessary, Game 5 on Saturday the 3rd (4:00 p.m.). If needed, the series will return to Palm Desert for Game 6 on Monday, June 5 (7:00 p.m.) and a deciding Game 7 on Wednesday the 7th (7:00 p.m.).
The series’ opener will represent the first-ever game between the two franchises, as the ‘Birds and Admirals did not face off during the regular season.
Help from Above
Milwaukee finished the regular season as runners-up in the West’s Central Division, with the Admirals authoring a 41-24-5-2 mark, three points behind division winner Texas.
Following a bye in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs and ensuing, five-game Round 2 win over Manitoba, the “Ads” achieved vengeance for their second-place status, felling Texas in a deciding Game 5 to advance to the Western Conference Finals.
The Admirals’ postseason battle plan has been well-buttressed by reinforcements. With parent club Nashville failing to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Milwaukee had seven players reassigned to their squad for the AHL’s postseason. To view the Admirals’ full complement of starters from Texas series is to evidence some ample NHL experience:
-(D) Roland McKeown (16 career NHL games; six this season)
-(D) Spencer Stastney (Eight career NHL games, all this season)
-(D) Jordan Gross (25 career NHL games; 15 this season)
-(C) Mark Jankowski (322 career NHL games; 50 this season)
-(C) Phil Tomasino (107 career NHL games; 31 this season)
– (LW) Egor Afanasyev (17 career NHL games, all this season)
– (RW) Anthony Angello (31 career NHL games; none this season)
-(RW) Luke Evangelista (24 career NHL games, all this season)
Among non-starter Ads, there’s also a full menu of top-level time: winger Michael McCarron (158 NHL games; 32 this season); winger Zach Sanford (305 NHL games; 16 this season); winger Kiefer Sherwood (119 career NHL games; 32 this season).
Among faces both seasoned and fresh, the 21-year-old Evangelista would appear the one to watch; in his 24 games with the Preds he scored an impressive 15 points (seven goals and eight assists). After returning to the Ads for the AHL’s postseason, he’s shown no slow, authoring a team-high 13 playoff points.
The skills of Gross also require attention; while with the Colorado Eagles last season, he received the “Eddie Shore Award” as the AHL’s Defenseman of the Year, en route to being named a First-Team AHL All Star. Across Milwaukee’s Calder Cup run this year, he’s recorded 11 points in 10 games.
An Admirable Admiral/A Dominant Bird
Per the Firebirds’ conquer of Calgary and league MVP Dustin Wolf in Round 3, a focus on netminding will largely define the Conference Finals’ ultimate outcome.
Considered a rising-star in the Predators’ system, 20-year-old Yaroslav Askarov was the 11th overall pick by Nashville in the 2020 draft; in his first year of AHL hockey, the rookie netminder has developed a rep as much for his budding talents as for his brash attitude and animated, if not cavalier style.
In his 48 starts during the regular season, Askarov earned 26 wins, which tied for third in the AHL, coupled with a more modest 2.69 Goals Against (16th in the AHL) and 0.911 Save Percentage (13th). Across the Admirals’ 10 playoff games, he’s allowed multiple goals in eight of those contests, including the passage of three goals on six occasions.
On the opposite end of the rink, Firebirds’ goalie Joey Daccord has been nothing short of superb all year long; as CV’s emotional and vocal frontman, the NHL-ready talent is leading by example in the playoffs, with Daccord owning a monster 0.935 Save Percentage in the postseason, matched with a 2.09 Goals Against. He’s allowed one or fewer goals in five of the Firebirds’ 13 playoff games, and his 60-save performance in the ‘Birds triple overtime win over Calgary in Game 3 of the Pacific Finals is now the stuff of desert lore.
While the Admirals’ NHL pedigree can’t be ignored, CV’s flight into uncharted air has taken on a sense of destiny in this inaugural season. To briefly consider: The ‘Birds are a mere six months’ removed from not even having home ice to skate upon and now . . . just four wins separate them from AHL history.
Having played the full complement of postseason games with all three series going the distance only seems to have strengthened the ‘Birds’ bond, as evidenced by their 4-0 record in elimination games.
Of course, all four of those games took place on home ice, which, provided the 2-3-2 format, should serve CV well in the Conference Finals, as Acrisure Arena continues to house an increasingly rabid and invested fan base.
Inversely, the Admirals’ home sheet resulted in a measured 18-14-3-1 regular season mark, matched with a 3-2 home record in the playoffs (Panther Arena, it may be noted, averaged a decent 5,400 fans/per in the regular season, but just 3,990/per in the Calder Cup Playoffs).
For what Milwaukee’s reinforcements offered in bulk – the Firebirds’ roster returns present in more succinct quality. The influence of Andrew Poturalski’s early return from injury simply can’t be overstated; the AHL’s two-time defending scoring champ and twice a Calder Cup champion (2019; 2022), Poturalski’s Game 5 game-winner against Calgary was pure poetry in a season of verse, just as his presence of the Power Play fast returned the ‘Birds unit to one of far greater cohesion and patience. Such skill will be needed to overcome an Admirals’ Penalty Kill that was the AHL’s third-best (84.3%) in the regular season.
Coupled with Poturalski, the CV returns of Jesper Froden and Tye Kartye should also further the cause. After scoring a trio of goals in his NHL/Stanley Cup debut, Kartye, the AHL’s Rookie of the Year, netted nary a score in his two game versus Calgary – that doughnut won’t stand for long. Froden, the ‘Birds’ leading scorer when promoted to the Kraken in late February, offered more instant returns, scoring CV’s opening goal in Game 5 against the Wranglers before adding a pair of assists.
With both a home ice and goalkeeping advantage, the CV key will be putting forth a markedly better backchecking and d-zone effort than the ‘Birds presented against Calgary; far too often, the sight of free-ranging Wranglers put Daccord in tough spots in the series previous, continually putting the playoff advance at risk.
Big boy defenders Eddie Wittchow, Gustav Olofsson and Matt Tennyson (who played for Milwaukee last season) need continually bully Milwaukee in the crease and on the boards, just as stick-savvy d-men Jimmy Schuldt, Brogan Rafferty and rising stud Ryker Evans must ensure clean and concise transition.
Prediction Firebirds win in six games.