Firebirds Flying Toward Finish Line

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Written by Judd Spicer

With just a shade over a month to play in the 2023-24 regular season, the Firebirds are soaring toward a first-place finish in the Pacific Division and appear primed for another spirited playoff run.

Having accrued standing points in 19 of their past 20 games, CV has grabbed a stronghold on the Pac’s top spot; as of March 13, the ‘Birds (78 points) own a nine-point edge over second place Tucson and Colorado with just 16 games left to play. Concurrently, the stellar run finds the Firebirds as the top team in the Western Conference, holding a three-point edge over Milwaukee (though the Admirals have played three fewer games to-date).

A more macro lens further finds the ‘Birds with the second-best mark in the entire league, trailing only defending champion Hershey (88 to 78, though the Bears have played one more game to-date; conversely, Hershey has become the first team to qualify for the Calder Cup Playoffs).   

Reference to CV’s final two foes from their inaugural season proves a pair of headlines not lost on the hockey world beyond our humble desert.

Provided the Bears’ monster, seasonal start to their title defense (going 35-7-2 through their first 44 games) and Milwaukee’s run at the league’s consecutive wins mark after the turn of the ’24 calendar (ultimately authoring 19 consecutive victories, second-best all time in the AHL), the soaring run for CV has been a bit muted on the national stage.

Coachella Valley head coach Dan Bylsma addressed as much following the ‘Birds’ 7-2 win over Tucson on Saturday, March 9.

“(Earlier this year) we were just a point or two off our pace from last December, but it didn’t feel that way,” said Bylsma in his post-game press conference. “This year’s team has had to fight and struggle and claw to get back to what maybe was expected of us. With points in 19 of our last 20 . . . that’s pretty amazing. And, yeah, maybe flying under the radar a little bit, but I feel like this team, these guys are finding their way; finding out what exactly kind of team we can be. And our play over the past two-and-a-half months . . . it’s not quite the appropriate time (to talk playoffs), but the ‘Birds are comin’.”

Sorting the Schedule

Following a stretch of just one game in 11-days between March 9-19, CV gets back to the ice in earnest, playing their final 15 regular season games in 32 days between March 20 – April 21. Eight of said games are on Acrisure home ice, including five of the final six.

Per the AHL’s daily Playoff Primer the ‘Birds’ “Magic Number” to qualify for the postseason (seemingly a mere formality at this stage) has been whittled down to 9, while, perhaps more poignantly, their remaining opponent’s cumulative win percentage (aka, Strength of Schedule) is a modest .537, second-easiest in the division.

Of greater focus is CV’s run at the Pac’s top spot, which comes with the coveted Bye for the opening round of the playoffs; in concert with a pass into the Divisional Semifinal, the Pac champ is bracketed to then play the lowest-seeded first round winner.

Per those opponents, here’s how the final 16 games stack up, with foes listed alphabetically and including their present standing:

Abbottsford, 7th in the Pacific Division – At the Canucks on April 6 and 7

Bakersfield, 5th in the Pacific – At the Condors on March 22; hosting Condors on April 12

Calgary, 6th in the Pacific – At the Wranglers on March 26 and 27

Henderson, 8th in the Pacific, At Silver Knights on March 30

Ontario, 4th in the Pacific – At the Reign on March 15; hosting Reign on April 10

San Diego, 9th in the Pacific – Hosting the Gulls on April 14 and 21; at Gulls on April 20

San Jose, 10th in Pacific – Hosting Barracuda on April 4

Texas, 3rd place in Central Division – Hosting the Stars on March 20 and 23  

Tucson, 2nd (tied) in Pacific – Hosting the Roadrunners on April 17

Seems palatable, yeah? It should. The ‘Birds have zero regular season games left versus Colorado and, as noted, just three combined games remaining against (slipping) Tucson and (soaring) Ontario.

Tabs on Kraken (i.e., Ryker)

As the Firebirds have taken hold of the league’s goal scoring lead (at 198 . . . and counting), a focus up the coast should be on the defensive end, and one player in particular.

With 18 games left in their regular season schedule, parent club Seattle is currently on the outside-looking-in to qualify for the NHL postseason, trailing Las Vegas by nine points for the final Wild Card slot.

While all organizational rungs undoubtedly seek cumulative success, the AHL postseason is as much about who’s on the roster as it is about who may be joining a roster by way of the NHL.

Whatever the Kraken’s eventual path, well-worthy of CV note is that, by way of a “paper transaction” on March 8, Firebirds’ All Star defenseman Ryker Evans is eligible to rejoin Coachella Valley for the AHL’s postseason. As the ‘Birds’ few spots of bother have occasionally presented some challenges on the Penalty Kill (81.3%, charting 19th in the league) and the backliner unit has allowed some crease space which simply won’t befit the postseason, the prospect of having Evans back for another playoff charge will prove massive to CV’s deep-run chances. Last season, save for Joey Daccord, Evans blossomed into the ‘Birds biggest playoff presence. To get him back for a ’24 postseason would truly galvanize the CV defensive unit.