Written by Judd Spicer
Do you believe in oracles?
If but to briefly borrow from Al Michaels’ iconic “Miracle on Ice” call, an observance of the growing inventory of homemade fan signage across rabid Acrisure Arena is to view one consistently-present sign which simply, powerfully and accurately narrates this debut season of Coachella Valley Firebirds’ hockey.
It reads: “We believe.”
Via a Game 6 home win over the Milwaukee Admirals, the Firebirds’ inaugural campaign of incalculable belief flew an improbable chapter further, with Coachella Valley advancing to the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup Championship Finals. The title final is the stuff of puck fable, pitting the first year ‘Birds in a best-of-seven series versus the AHL’s most storied franchise, the Hershey Bears.
Facing off for the first time ever, CV and Hershey get the 2-3-2 format Calder Cup Championship underway at Acrisure on Thursday, June 8 at 7:00 p.m., with Game 2 taking place in Palm Desert on Saturday the 10th at 7:00.
The series then moves east to Pennsylvania, with the Bears’ home ice of Giant Arena hosting Game 3 on Tuesday, June 13 (4:00 p.m. Pacific), Game 4 on Thursday the 15th (4:00) and, if necessary, Game 5 on Saturday the 17th (4:00). If needed, the Championship will then return to Acrisure for Game 6 on Monday, June 19 (7:00) and a deciding Game 7 on Wednesday the 21st (7:00).
New Wings/Old Claws
En route to making the championship series, the Firebirds became the first-ever AHL team west of Texas to make it to the title round, while currently becoming the first team since the Texas Stars of 2009-10 to make it to the Calder Cup Finals in their inaugural season.
A CV win in the finals? Well, since the American Hockey League debuted in 1936, only one other first-year expansion franchise has ever captured the Cup in its inaugural year, that being the 1977-78 Maine Mariners (the team would go on to repeat as champs the season following).
Of worthy note is that the Nova Scotia Voyageurs won the 1971-72 title in their first year in said city, but were preceded by franchises in Houston and Montreal; in 1993-94, the Portland Pirates captured the championship in their first year in said city, but were preceded by franchises in Erie and Baltimore.
As for those Pirates: While Coachella Valley and Hershey have never before faced-off, their respective head coaches have. And, yup, they did so in that ’94 finals series, with current Hershey frontman Todd Nelson playing defense for Portland and Firebirds’ head coach Dan Bylsma playing forward for the Moncton Hawks; the Pirates won the series in six games and the Hawks franchise ultimately folded at season’s end.
Nelson’s Calder pedigree extends beyond his own blades; he’s also won AHL titles as an assistant coach (Chicago Wolves in 2008) and as a head coach (Grand Rapids Griffins in 2017).
Hershey — AHL affiliate of the Washington Capitals since 2005 – owns all manner of historic league records. Founded in 1932, the franchise joined the American Hockey League in 1938 and has since become known as one of the nation’s most celebrated minor league sports towns.
Winning hasn’t hurt the rep, as the Bears are all-time AHL leaders in both conference crowns (24) and Calder Cups (11). Since its first championship in 1946-47, Hershey has won at least one Cup in each ensuing decade . . . save for the 2020’s. The Bears last title came in the 2009-10 season.
Hershey finished the regular season with a 44-19-5-4 mark, good for second place in the Atlantic Division, one point behind the Providence Bruins. Following a bye into the second round, the Bears made short work of the Charlotte Checkers in the division semi (3-1 series win) and conducted even briefer work in the division title series (a 3-0 sweep over the Hartford Wolf Pack). In the Eastern Conference Finals, Hershey melted away the Rochester Americans in six games to return to the championship series.
The Bears’ roster recipe for success is founded on solid AHL veterans, legit NHL prospects and a rising stud goalkeeper.
Sound familiar, Firebirds’ fans?
While Hershey didn’t have a player in the league’s top-25 in scoring (CV had four players in the top 32), these Bears weren’t built on bulk output. Rather, Hershey excelled at muting opponents’ net-work, allowing just 184 Goals Against in the regular season (2nd in the AHL behind the Calgary Wranglers) and authoring an 81.9% Penalty Kill that was good for 3rd in the East.
Come the postseason, the Bears have allowed just 1.92 Goals Against across their 13 games and upped the Kill clip to 85.7%. Heck, in their six-game series win over Rochester, Hershey needed but 13 total goals of their own to claim victory.
Bears’ center Mike Sgarbossa, he of 530 career AHL regular season games, led Hershey in scoring on the season with 58 points, but hasn’t been on-ice since the Charlotte series due to injury; his status remains unknown for the finals. Forward Mike Vecchione, with 338 AHL games under the belt, charted second for Hershey with 55 points, but has tallied just two scores in the Bears’ postseason. Rookie speedster Ethen Frank (big-time winner of the fastest skater competition at AHL All-Star weekend) had himself a stellar season with 49 points in 57 games (including a team-high 30 goals) but has a total goal doughnut to show for the playoffs.
Center Connor McMichael, the 25th overall pick in the 2019 draft, would appear to be meriting his draft status; after a solid 39-point year in 57 games (following 27 points in his 33-game rookie campaign), he’s added seven more points in the playoffs. Rookie Hendrix Lapierre, the 22nd overall pick in the 2020 draft, had 30 points in 60 games this year and has tacked on five more in the postseason. Aliaksei Protas, the 91st pick in the ’19 draft, has played in 91 NHL combined games for the Capitals the past two years, during which the 22-year-old center has put up a solid a solid 24 points; in these Calder Cup Playoffs, Protas has been the Bears most consistent threat, with a team-high 12 points, team-high (tied) five goals and points in eight of 13 playoff contests.
Between the pipes, the Bears have enjoyed the rise of Hunter Shepard. After anchoring a 2.18 Goals Against mark (2nd in the AHL behind league MVP Dustin Wolf) in the regular season, Shepard’s GA playoff line has slivered down to a mere 1.85, while starting all 13 games for the Bears. Across the postseason, he’s allowed two or fewer goals in 11 of those starts while recording a pair of playoff shutouts.
Hershey plays very solid team defense, coupled with a grating style of puck detail and a stellar counter against the rush.
Again: Sound familiar, Firebirds’ fans?
Coachella Valley was taken the distance by not dissimilar, bottling styles seen via both the Colorado Eagles and Calgary Wranglers and, of course, came out victorious both times. Subsequently, after being physically dominated by Milwaukee from the final period of Game 3 in the Western Conference Finals through the first period in Game 5 of the series – the ‘Birds found a way to conquer that style, too.
Readying to drop puck on the 92nd game of their inaugural year, CV has cemented their status as the most skilled and finest skating team in the league, a rep buoyed by the postseason returns of Andrew Poturalski, Tye Kartye, Jesper Froden and John Hayden.
Hershey has no doubt game-planned to pluck the ‘Birds’ offensive feathers with study of what the Eagles and Wranglers did right in their respective series, and CV will again need to find a way to crisply clear their own zone and open lanes on the Bears’ end.
Provided some taut 5-on-5’s, CV’s Power Play units will need to improve on the mere 18.1% rate authored in the playoffs; at one (lengthy) stage in the Milwaukee series, the ‘Birds’ man advantage units were shut down 19 consecutive times before Kartye’s ultimate series-clincher in Game 6.
For all of CV’s offensive prowess and talent, Kartye is the key. In Games 1 and 6 against Milwaukee, he wasn’t just maybe/kinda’/probably the best player on the ice – he was notably the best player on the ice. No doubt fueled by his trio of scores for the Seattle Kraken in the Stanley Cup Playoffs/his NHL debut, the AHL’s Rookie of the Year will need to play at peak level night in/night out in the finals for CV to succeed. As for the distributor: Pandemic-era considered, Porturalski is now appearing in the third consecutive Calder Cup Finals, having won titles with Charlotte in 2019 (where he was playoffs MVP) and with Chicago in 2022.
Moreover, Kartye’s rapport with Poturalski is next-level, and will be unlike anything Hershey has seen all season. While CV has flexed some line restructures by virtue of the reinforcements, the more these two are on-ice together the better.
In net, Joey Daccord showed some wear and tear in the Admirals’ series, not a surprise considering that he’s started all 19 of the Firebirds’ playoff games. Dating back to Game 5 of the Calgary series, the stellar netminder has now allowed three or more goals in six of the last seven games. A cache of the goals allowed against Milwaukee came via some outmuscling by the burly Ads, along with some suspect backchecking by the ‘Birds; while defenders Ryker Evans and Jimmy Schuldt were consistently up to the task, the rest of the defensive unit needs to evolve on the championship stage and further aid their star goalie. Helping with the task will surely be duel-end grinders Carson Twarynski, Ville Pettman and captain Max McCormick – all of whom proved against Milwaukee that can CV bring some brown bag to couple with the scoring highlights.
Old School/New School. Two highly-seasoned head coaches. Two arenas proven to be packed and invested. And a Firebirds’ crew that is 11-1 this postseason when scoring at least three goals.
A season of desert magic takes one more improbable flight in a title duel befitting its stature, and the Firebirds are engaging this rare air with an intangible belief reaching heights seemingly destined for new history.
Firebirds win in seven games.