CV Firebirds vs. Milwaukee Admirals Western Conference Finals Preview

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Written by Judd Spicer

Heading into the 2024 Calder Cup Playoffs, acknowledging the fickle nature of sporting contracts and AHL rosters, Coachella Valley forward Andrew Poturalski, channeling the Chicago Bulls, referred to the Firebirds’ repeat run at an AHL title as the “Last Dance.”

With the ‘Birds’ eventual third season roster almost certain to present an aesthetic alternate to the core crew of CV’s first two seasons, said dance just experienced a palpable new twirl.

On Tuesday, May 28, a day before the Firebirds endeavor a Western Conference Finals rematch versus the Milwaukee Admirals, CV’s parent club, Seattle, announced that Dan Bylsma, the only head coach in the Firebirds’ brief history, would be promoted to frontman of the Kraken. For Bylsma, who won a Stanley Cup title as head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009 and was the subsequent recipient of the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s top coach in 2011, the hire concludes a seven-year absence from leading an NHL bench, dating to his latter season as head coach of the Buffalo Sabers in 2018.

Heading into the series against Milwaukee, regular season and playoffs considered, to-date, Bylsma has led the Firebirds to a stellar, cumulative mark of 115-44-11-7 across the two seasons.

As further announced in both the Seattle presser and concurrent, desert media sessions, Bylsma’s ascent up the coast won’t be immediate. Rather, he’ll remain in his Firebirds’ role through the conclusion of this season, a flight path which has the Firebirds’ faithful eyeing a return run to the Calder Cup Championship Finals.

Ready for a Rematch

Riding a six-game playoff win streak, the Firebirds are back in the Western Conference Finalsfor the second time in as many years of the team’s existence. The accomplishment earned the ‘Birds the distinction of being the first AHL team to make the league’s final four in their first two years of play since the Houston Aeros in 2002 and ’03.

In CV’s flight path for a repeat appearance in the Calder Cup Championship Finals is a foe familiar in the form ofMilwaukee.

Though the two squads have yet to meet this season, the Western showdown proves, of course, a rematch of last season’s conference championship series, won by the ‘Birds in six games. Per last year, this Western Conference Finals repeat plays as a best-of-seven showdown with a 2-3-2, home-away-home format; the series schedule is as follows (*as necessary):

  • Wednesday, May 29, Milwaukee at CV (7:00 p.m. Pacific)
  • Friday, May 31, Milwaukee at CV (7:00 p.m. Pac)
  • Tuesday, June 4, CV at Milwaukee (5:00 p.m. Pac)
  • Thursday, June 6, CV at Milwaukee (5:00 p.m. Pac)
  • Saturday, June 8, CV at Milwaukee* (4:00 p.m. Pac)
  • Monday, June 10 Milwaukee at CV* (7:00 p.m. Pacific)
  • Wednesday, June 12, Milwaukee at CV* (7:00 p.m. Pacific)

The Admirals (47-22-2-1), regular season champs of the Central Division, earned a first-round bye and ascend to the Conference Finals after surviving a best-of-five second round series with Texas, followed by further staving of elimination via their Game 5 win over Grand Rapids on Sunday, May 26.

While Milwaukee has lasted, the ‘Birds have rested. Following an 11-day non-game stretch segueing from the close of the regular season into CV’s Round 2 victory over Calgary, the Firebirds’ fast, 3-0 dispatch over Ontario earned CV a nine-day stretch of non-game action.

Inverse to the inaugural year’s postseason marathon of 26 games – including the maxed-out 13 games in the playoffs’ first three rounds – this version of the ‘Birds has played a mere seven postseason games heading into the Western Finals, translating to the conference title opener slated as CV’s eighth game in a 38-day calendar stretch.

From 19 to . . . Normal

The Admirals made national headlines at the onset of the year by winning 19 consecutive games to start the 2024 calendar. The run accounts for the second-longest winning streak in the history of the AHL.

Since the close of the streak on February 25, however, the Admirals have been demoted a few ranks.

Including loses in six of their next seven games following the streak’s conclusion, Milwaukee authored a mere 11-12-1-1 record the rest of way after the miraculous run ended. Postseason outcomes considered, that puts the Admirals at a mere 17-16-1-1 mark across their last 35 games.

Familiar Faces

Comparing Milwaukee’s active roster sported versus CV in last season’s West Finals with the active roster the Admirals put forth against Grand Rapids in this year’s Central Division Finals, a personnel crossover proves noteworthy.

Translation: The Firebirds will see some familiar faces in the rematch.

All told, 10 of the same Admirals appeared across the two different season series, respectively, a mark which doesn’t include the return of Karl Taylor, head coach of Milwaukee.

Per the Firebirds’ own repeat success this year, continuity led to impressive metrics for the Admirals, as Milwaukee finished the regular season charting second in the West in both scoring (238 goals) and goals allowed (193); both stats served as runner-up status to CV’s respective conference-leading marks in both categories.

Per the former tally, the Admirals accomplished as much despite having nary a player chart in the AHL’s top 32 scorers.

Most formidable of the Milwaukee returnees is top pointer Egor Afanasyev, who may well be the most talented scorer in the AHL. In his third season with the Admirals, Afanasyev authored career-highs in both goals and assists (27 apiece), totaling 54 points in 56 games. Come the postseason, the 23-year-old Russian has added nine more points in 10 games, including a hat trick in the Admirals’ Game 4 overtime win over Grand Rapids. And, harkening back to ’23, in the five games against the ‘Birds in last season’s playoff, Afanasyev totaled five points in the six game series, including goals in three different contests.

Further familiar faces of note also includes Finnish forward Joakim Kemell, who tallied a trio of goals in the six playoff games against CV last year, and right winger Phil Tomasino, who accounted for five points in last season’s Western Finals.

A savvy cache of Ads’ defenders are all back for the rematch including Mark Del Gaizo, Kevin Gravel, Spencer Stastney, Roland McKeown, Adam Wilsby and Jordan Gross.

Among the newcomers, red-hot frontliner Zach L’Heureux comes off stellar rookie campaign which resulted in 48 points (19 goals and 29 assists) in 66 games. Come the postseason, the 21-year-old has shown no slow, tallying a Calder Cup Playoff-leading eight goals and 13 points.

On the frontline, center Cal O’Reilly returned to the Ads this season for his second Milwaukee stint and just played his 100th Calder Cup Playoff game; all told, the 37-year-old has 64 career points in the AHL’s postseason.

Between the pipes, netminder Yaroslav Askarov started the opening two games of the conference championship versus the ‘Birds last year . . . and did not fare well. After allowing eight goals and taking two losses, the Admirals opted for Devin Cooley the rest of the way.

This season, Askarov rebounded nicely after his CV beat-down, ultimately going 30-13-1 (second-most wins in the league) with a 2.39 Goals Against Average (5th in the AHL). Playing in a timeshare with well-traveled veteran (and 2016-17 Aldege Bastien award-winner as the AHL’s top goalie) netminder Troy Grosenick, Askarov has gone 2-3 with a bulky 3.23 GAA in this year’s playoffs before ultimately leaving the ice with injury late in Milwaukee’s stunner 4-2 Game 4 loss to Grand Rapids.

After Askarov didn’t play (nor dress) in Game 5 against the Griffins, it’s feasible to believe that Grosenick will be in the Admirals’ net for the opener versus the ‘Birds; for his part, the 34-year-old Wisconsin-native went 17-8-2-2 this season before charting a solid 4-1 mark in the playoffs, highlighted by his 30-save shutout over the Griffins in the series’ deciding Game 5.

Analysis and Prediction

How the Firebirds respond to and/or compartmentalize the Bylsma news now becomes a notable factor in the series’ storytelling, especially for a squad which seems to have found full focus at the most important stage of the season.

Bench aside, with an enhanced commitment to backchecking, a graduated form of defensive physicality and ample playoff proof-of-purchase from goalkeeper Chris Driedger (6-1, 2.39 GAA, .921 Save Percentage in playoffs), the Firebirds have fast erased any lingering postseason question marks heading into these Western Conference Finals.

Of even further fear for foes: Sure, CV may not have any players charting in the top-20 in Calder Cup Playoffs’ scoring, but such a metric matters not when considering that, through a mere seven playoff games, the Firebirds have received goals from a dozen different players and have received point contributions from an astounding 19 different skaters. Of added note is that the ‘Birds have received goals from their fourth line in five of the seven games.

Depth proves a dagger come this stage of the season, and there’s no team in the league which can boast the ‘Birds’ diversity of scoring threats throughout the roster; truly, it’s not even close. That Milwaukee sports a modest Power Play unit (21st in the AHL this season at 17.8%) and very average Penalty Kill crew (80.9% in the regular season; 77.5% in the playoffs) would only seem to additionally indicate the Firebirds’ opportunity to dictate offense in this series.

With the CV wings working on all cylinders, Milwaukee’s impressive 19-game run from months of yore now looks deep in the rear view.  

Save for an initial playoff egg lain in the postseason opener against Calgary, the ‘Birds are in all-go mode and appear wholly rested, totally driven and amply motivated on a return to the final series of the AHL season.

Prediction: Firebirds in six