Written by Judd Spicer
Time for one final flight.
Fighting off elimination for the fifth time in as many games this Calder Cup postseason, the CV Firebirds melted the Hershey Bears 5-2 at Acrisure Arena on Monday night to force a deciding Calder Cup Finals championship Game 7 in an inaugural season continually defined by the extraordinary.
The Firebirds are now just one win away from wanding a final, magical chapter of their historic debut year.
The final puck drop of the season takes place at 7:00 p.m. this Wednesday the 21st in Palm Desert as the ‘Birds and Bears face off in the concluding clash of the finals, with the Calder Cup waiting in the wings.
Coming home after a trio of one-goal losses in Hershey (including two in OT) after taking a 2-0 lead in the series, the ‘Birds fast rallied from an early 0-1 deficit before a crazed, sell-out crowd of 10,087 fans, scoring thrice in a seven-minute span of the opening frame to grab a lead their beaks wouldn’t relinquish.
“I thought our guys played considerably better with the energy of the building and being back here at Acrisure,” said Firebirds’ head coach Dan Bylsma. “It’s proven a tough place (for opponents) to play, and our guys have fed off of the energy of the building. The fans, the building, were as much a part of the win as the guys were.”
Wednesday’s game represents just the twelfth time in American Hockey League history that the title series has gone to a seventh game, and just the second time in the past two decades that the championship round has gone the distance. The Calder Cup Finals Game 7 will also be the Firebirds’ 26th game of the postseason, setting a new AHL record for playoff heft.
“The ‘Birds, we want to play as much hockey as we possibly can; we want it to go as long as we can, to go the distance,” added Bylsma. “It seems fitting that we go the distance.”
As a continuing series trend – and one which CV no doubt aims to ensue — the home team has won each game in the series. Additionally, Monday’s victory improved the Firebirds mark to 12-3 on their home ice during the postseason and represented the seventh consecutive win at Acrisure.
Preceding the loss, Hershey struck first and fast on Monday night, with forward Connor McMichael scoring off a centering connection from Joe Snively just 90-seconds into the night.
But on the first power play of the night at the midway stage of the opening salvo, CV answered in short order, breaking a series scoreless streak of over 90-minutes when captain Max McCormick sent the local faithful into a frenzy with a backhander over the glove side of Bears’ netminder Hunter Shepard to tie the game at 1-1.
Feeling flow and fueled by a bursting fandom, CV scored again less than two minutes later when John Hayden tallied his first goal of the postseason, muscling into the crease to pump in a comebacker from a Ryker Evans slapshot past Shepard’s left pad.
With just over three minutes left in the first, Cameron Hughes – he of a penchant for the dramatic — found rare air on a puck flipped from the boards by Ville Petman which Hughes somehow controlled while acrobatically angling around Hershey defender Vincent Loiro and flicking the puck top shelf over Shepard’s left shoulder.
At the 3:28 mark of the second, Hershey closed the gap to 3-2 with a goal by left winger Beck Malenstyn, which deflected off of a CV defender.
“Both home teams have fed off their crowds, but, going into the series, we knew we were going to have to win one on the road,” said Hershey head coach Todd Nelson. “We still have that opportunity; we know how tough it’s gonna’ be. We played against a team (tonight) that was desperate, that wanted to come out and stay alive and give themselves a chance, and they did. You’ve got to give them credit.”
Just under 12 minutes into the second frame, the ‘Birds went 2-for-2 with the man advantage when goalie Joey Daccord streamed a seamless connection from his left goal line to the same-sided Hershey blue line, where an awaiting Kole Lind slid a snapper past Shepard’s glove, giving CV a 4-2 edge.
Coupled with the assist, Daccord stopped 20 of the Bears’ 20 shots on the night.
“We wanted to leave it all out there and do everything we could to force a Game 7,” the netminder said. “And I think we’re already looking ahead and super-pumped for that atmosphere and to do all that we can to bring this trophy home.”
Clearly not undone by a postseason scoring drought dating to May 12, Lind then lit the lamp for a second time at the 3:57 mark of period three, enjoying a fine right-to-left cross center pass from a weaving Alexander True.
“The energy in this building is unbelievable,” said Lind. “And we’ve said that probably thousands of times, but it just keeps getting better.”
Akin to his goalkeeper, Lind was also peering toward Game 7.
“This will definitely be the biggest game I’ve played in my life,” said the winger,” this is the moment you dream of as a kid, and we really want to seize the moment.”
Daccord further acknowledged the magnitude of what’s to come on Wednesday.
“If it’s not my biggest (game ever), then it’s right there,” he said. “And I think that goes for everybody in our locker room. One of the biggest games of our lives and, for most of us, we may never play a game bigger than this one. There’s no other way we’d want to have it: Game 7 in our barn in front of our fans.”
In his own moment of forethought to the season finale, Bylsma – who led the Pittsburgh Penguins to a Game 7 victory in the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals – also granted that Wednesday was soon to provide an opportunity unlike any other. “It’s not just another hockey game,” he concluded. “We’ve talked about it all along: This is what you play for, this is why we’re playing. I think as a kid, in the backyard, you dream of playing Game 7. These are the pinnacle games – the games you hope to play for, work to play for, dream to play for. And that’s gonna’ happen on Wednesday night.”