CV Firebirds vs. Calgary Wranglers Playoff Preview

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Written by Judd Spicer

If familiarity breed contempt, the Firebirds’ Divisional Semifinal playoff series versus the Calgary Wranglers will be one narrated by some scorn and spite.

It can’t be skated around: These two squads have no love lost between them, and such disdain planted seeds of heightened levels since the ‘Birds’ dispatched of the northern neighbors in last season’s electric, best-of-five Division Finals.

Of course, seventh-seeded Calgary wasn’t supposed to be here. And yet, by virtue of a two-game upset sweep of second-seeded Tucson in the Pac Division’s opening round, the Wranglers’ fast-erased the dour vibes of a 2023-34 regular season in which they accrued 28 fewer standing points than a year ago.

The Firebirds, of course, have proven a model of consistency across the franchise’s pair of regular seasons, achieving the same 103-point standing totals in each of the last two years. Among the ‘Birds’ ample successes was a 6-2 mark versus the Wranglers this season; though, worthy of note, is that the teams have met just twice (March 26 and 27, in Calgary) since February 1.

Colliding anew, the 2-3/away-home Divisional Semifinal format (as chosen by the Firebirds) for this year’s postseason showdown plays out as follows (*as necessary):

  • Friday, May 3, CV at Calgary (6:00 p.m. Pacific)
  • Sunday, May 5, CV at Calgary (3:00 p.m. Pac)
  • Wednesday, May 8, Calgary at CV (7:00 p.m. Pac)
  • Friday, May 10, Calgary at CV* (7:00 p.m. Pac)
  • Sunday, May 12, Calgary at CV* (3:00 p.m. Pac)

The ‘Birds return to the ice following an 11-day game layoff, earned via the first round bye provided as Pacific Division champs, and CV’s home game on May 8 will represent the close of a 17-day window of non-game days at Acrisure Arena, dating to the Firebirds’ regular season  finale on April 21.

Not Your Uncle’s Wranglers

The ‘Birds’ mirrored point total from last season isn’t the lone echo of impressive continuity, as CV’s 2023-24 roster and concurrent postseason lineup has and will feature a host of familiar faces who narrated the team’s run to the Calder Cup Finals in the team’s inaugural year.

Calgary? Not so much. Gone is two-time AHL Coach of the Year, Mitch Love (now an assistant with the NHL’s Washington Capitals), and departed is last season’s team-leading scorer, First Team All-Star Matthew Phillips (now with the Hershey Bears).

In fact, of the Wranglers’ top-five scorers from last season, just two – frontliners Ben Jones and Emilio Pettersen – are with Calgary for these Calder Cup playoffs.

Inversely, the Firebirds return eight of their top dozen scorers from last season (which doesn’t include Shane Wright), and have been buoyed by fresh talent both veteran (Devin Shore, Marian Studenic, Connor Carrick) and nascent (Ryan Winterton, Logan Morrison, Jacob Melanson, Ville Ottavainen).  

Calgary’s personnel changes considered, their shutdown, cloggy style of play simply wasn’t as imposing or effective this go’round. Last season: The Wranglers allowed a razor-thin and league-best, 174 goals against. This year? Calgary relinquished 212 scores, charting 9th in the Western Conference.

Additionally, in 2022-23, the Wranglers’ Penalty Kill until was exemplary, quelling the man advantage with an AHL-topping 85.1% clip. In 2023-24? That unit sunk to 17th in the league (81.1%).

Of course, the meaning of such stats may all find some pause because of one man . . .

The Wolf

The AHL’s two-time winner of the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Award as the league’s best goalie, 23-year-old Dustin Wolf’s honors ensued last season with the Les Cunningham Award as the league’s Most Valuable Player, making him the first netminder in two decades to receive the AHL accolade.

This year, Wolf bounced readily between the AHL and NHL, ultimately playing in 36 games for the Wranglers (going 20-12-3) and 17 games for the non-playoff Calgary Flames (7-7-1); concluding the regular season campaign at the latter level, Wolf notably won his final four starts with the Flames.

Returned on loan from the NHL at the close of the Flames’ season, Wolf promptly won both first-round playoff games against Tucson, stopping 86 of the 89 shots the Roadrunners flicked his way.

Returning for what is very likely his final run in an AHL arena, Wolf’s memories of last season’s ouster to the Firebirds are seemingly front-of-mind; as the goalie recently told Chris Wahl at of his CV thoughts:

“They’ve got a lot of skill and they’re deep, they ended our season last year, and now’s the opportunity to try and give it back to them. (Firebirds forward Andrew) Poturalski’s ended my season two years in a row now; I know for me personally, this is a big series.”

Motivation is one thing; results are another. While Wolf namely dominated the AHL across the past three years, his games against the Firebirds proved an exception. In his lone start against the ‘Birds this season, he gave up three goals on January 31, in what resulted in a home shootout win for CV (and, the day ensuing, Wolf spelled starter Oscar Dansk for 27 minutes, allowing one goal in the ‘Birds’ 5-2 win).

More palpable was last year’s terse and tense postseason showdown, featuring CV’s triple overtime victory in Game 3 and the ‘Birds’ dramatic and deciding 6-5 OT win in Game 5.

Across the series’ dramatics, Wolf’s five starts resulted in a 2-3 mark with 16 goals allowed, coupled with a shutout posted in Calgary’s Game 4 victory in Palm Desert.

Analysis and Prediction

While the Firebirds’ road back to the Calder Cup Finals is no doubt finding an unexpected detour vs. Calgary, CV’s record since the calendar flipped to ’24 shows all signs of a team peaking toward the playoff and primed for the postseason.

With standing points earned in 23 of their final 25 regular season games, the Firebirds unquestioned drive to make another championship march is matched in motivation only be an ardent fan base which has spent the past 11 months loathing the close of last year’s final game.

But will overt rest equal rust for CV? Sure, maybe for a half a period, but after that, fans should take a breath when considering that in the four calendar scenarios in which the ‘Birds’ had a break of five or more days this season – they were a collective 4-0 in their respective returns to game action.

Added ‘Bird concerns may come via their own zone, yet such potential playoff worry finds further salve. While goalie Chris Driedger may have never played an AHL playoff game, consider that he has a trio of NHL postseason games under his belt (and is also in a contract year).

And while CV did occasionally struggle with defensive physicality around the crease this year, the return of an increasingly-muscular Ryker Evans, who tallied 62 hits in his 36 games with the Kraken this season, will no doubt add the team’s best blue liner back to an already-solid unit.Prediction: Firebirds in four games