CV Firebirds vs. Hershey Bears Calder Cup Champions Finals Preview

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Written by Judd Spicer

Hatch the Rematch.

Extending the lore of a remarkable young history, the Coachella Valley Firebirds are back in the Calder Cup Championship Finals for the second time in as many years of the team’s existence. By virtue of a convincing, 4-1 series win over the Milwaukee Admirals in the Western Conference Finals, the ‘Birds became just the fourth squad in 88-years of AHL history to advance to the title series in their first two seasons, and the first to accomplish the feat since the Maine Mariners of 1978-79.

And said accomplishment still buries the headline.

Across a second season played through the omnipresent undercurrent of avenging the painful close to CV’s inaugural campaign, the Firebirds will get the rare chance to enact such vindication, justification, absolution and retribution in a Calder Cup Finals rematch versus the venerable Hershey Bears, which held off a near-historic charge from the Cleveland Monsters to capture Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in overtime and advance to the final series of the season.

The Finals rematch is the league’s first since 1991, when the Springfield Indians won the latter half of back-to-back title series over the Rochester Americans.

The ‘Birds and Bears’ best-of-seven, 2-3-2 away-home-away schedule plays out as follows (*if necessary):

  • Game 1 – Friday, June 14, CV at Hershey (4:00 p.m. Pacific)
  • Game 2 -Sunday, June 16, CV at Hershey (2:00 p.m. Pac)
  • Game 3 – Tuesday, June 18, Hershey at CV (7:00 p.m. Pac)
  • Game 4- Thursday, June 20, Hershey at CV (7:00 p.m. Pac)
  • Game 5- Saturday, June 22, Hershey at CV * (6:00 p.m. Pac)
  • Game 6- Monday, June 24, CV at Hershey* (4:00 p.m. Pacific)
  • Game 7- Wednesday, June 26, CV at Hershey* (4:00 p.m. Pacific)

Beak Drop

In both hockey, and in life, some scars stay forever fresh, and rare is the opportunity on-ice or off to find instant salve for the pains which ail.

Of course, CV has proven a rare bird.

Between the close of the regular season and the onset of the Finals, the Firebirds’ playoff success will find them having played just 12 games across 53 days; after last year’s 26-game postseason marathon, this year’s playoff schedule won’t even hit the 20-game mark. Save for a playoff-opening clunker against Calgary, the heft of off-days has had zero impact on the ‘Birds’ bounce.

The blend of depth, youth, balance and experience has CV soaring in full, as evidenced by playoff points from 19 different players, and at least five postseason points from 15 different players. The line of John Hayden, Devin Shore and Marian Studenic has especially soared, with 28 cumulative points, including a team-high 11 from Shore. For Hayden: After a 15-goal regular season (in 65 games), he’s scored seven times in the playoffs, highlighted by his Game 5 hat trick against the Admirals.

Between the pipes, Chris Driedger continues to excel, having allowed two or fewer goals across eight of the ‘Birds’ dozen postseason games.

And with the chance to avenge last season’s outcome against Hershey comes the equally opportune moment to provide head coach Dan Bylsma the ultimate mic drop before he departs the desert for the ‘Birds’ Seattle Kraken parent club.

Can such a cumulative storyline be overhyped? No. If anything, the narrative requires more italics, more exclamation points and more all-caps.

Be assured, whatever North American team sport one follows, whatever level of league one watches – the Coachella Valley vs. Hershey redux undoubtedly charts among the continent’s biggest sporting stories of the year.

No Melt for Hershey

Segueing from its AHL-record 12th league title after besting the ‘Birds in overtime of Game 7 last year, Hershey showed no slow this season. Rather, the Bears ascended to another level.

While the Firebirds were finding their talons in the season’s early going, Hershey set forth on a pace which would eventually result in a league-best 53-14-0-5 regular season mark, a record which tallied both the top win count for a 72-game season and the second-best points percentage (.771) in the history of the AHL.

For what CV saw in an oft-effective, impediment-style of neutral and D-zone play in the latter five games of last year’s Finals, Hershey graduated into a suffocating system of silence in 2023-24.

To wit: Across the regular season, the Bears allowed opponents to score just 151 times (2.01 Goals Against per game), a metric, it need be noted, in which the Firebirds charted second in the league, with 182 goals allowed. As further evidence of the Bears’ defensive dominance this year, the league’s most frugal team last season was Calgary, which allowed 174 goals.

Special Teams undoubtedly aided the quash, as Hershey led the league with a Penalty Kill clip of 87.7%, the AHL’s second-best PK mark (pandemic seasons considered) in the past nine years.

And though Hershey did keep up its fevered win rate most of the season, worthy of some mention is that, come March and April, the Bears’ record slightly devolved, going 12-5-0-2 to close out the regular season. Come the playoffs, while CV has authored a sterling 10-2 mark – a run, of course, highlighted by a nine-game win streak – Hershey’s return to the Finals has presented a solid, if not slightly lessened 10-4 postseason record.

Fuzzy Rerun

Per the ‘Birds’ series against the Admirals, the championship rematch will also present a host of sequel sweaters between the two squads.

On the Bears’ side of the ice: In concert with head coach Todd Nelson again serving as frontman, Hershey sports 11 players who appeared in last season’s Calder Cup Finals.

That the Bears had nary a 60-point scorer on the season, and just one player (winger Joe Snively) chart in the AHL’s top-44 pointsmen, mattered not for a team with the aforementioned defensive acumen. All told, while the Bears had nine more wins this year than last, they tallied a mere dozen more goals in the process. The Firebirds, of course, led the AHL this season with 252 goals.

Success by way of depth (sound familiar?) ultimately resulted in 14 different Bears hitting the 20-point mark this year, the exact same amount as the Firebirds.

Behind Snively’s 59-point campaign, crossover returnees from last season further include center Hendrix Lapierre (17 points in 21 games for Hershey and 22 points in 51 games for NHL parent club Washington this year), speedster Ethen Frank (seven-game goal streak in this year’s playoffs) and veteran Mike Vecchione (who scored the OT title-winner in last season’s Game 7).

Further familiarity will be seen via well-traveled mighty mite Matthew Phillips, who starred for Calgary last season before appearing in 31 NHL games this year (between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins) and nine regular season games for Hershey.

Among the newcomers, frontliner Alex Limoges tallied 51 points on the season, while Frenchman Pierrick Dube’ added 48 points (including 28 goals). Veteran defender Chase Priskie – on his sixth team in seven AHL seasons – seems to have found cocoa comforts in Hershey, tallying 34 points during the regular season and 12 more in 14 playoffs games.

The most recognized name will come via the net, where Hunter Shepard, last year’s postseason MVP, took the baton in full come this season and ultimately earned first-team AHL All-Star accolades and the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Award as the league’s top goalkeeper. The honors were well-deserved after Shepard led the AHL in both Goals Against (1.76) and Save Percentage (.929) while posting five shutouts; Shepard’s 27-4-3 record between the pipes this year tracked as the second-highest winning percentage (.833) in AHL history, while the GAA mark serves as the fifth-best ever recorded.

Come the postseason, however, said stats have begun to show some degree of wiggle. His heroic, 42-save effort in Game 7 against Cleveland considered, in Shepard’s 14 appearances across the playoffs, he’s allowed three-plus goals on four occasions.

Analysis and Prediction

For the first time ever, in the nine respective playoff series across their brief and bountiful history, the Firebirds eye the prospect of not having a deciding playoff game on home ice.

No matter. If recent past proves prologue, the Firebirds — who went an AHL-best 26-5-3-2 on the road during the regular season, before tacking on four more away wins in the playoffs – aren’t gonna’ sweat enemy territory at Giant Center. Add in the experience of three games (yes, all defeats) in rabid Hershey for last year’s Finals, and the ‘Birds seasoned crew should be well-tempered for such an environment.

Additionally, the added rest time earned by the ‘Birds (five days off, compared to just one day of hibernation for the Bears), should only provide added readiness for a CV crew which wisely opted to travel east and hang in Hershey in lieu of returning home after the Game 5 win in Milwaukee on Saturday, June 8.

Inversely, with a mere day between lofty series and undoubtedly gassed after the seven-game duel with Cleveland (which included four overtime games), the banged-up Bears played sans an injured Frank in Game 7, and were also missing defenders Aaron Ness and Lucas Johansen.

The facts of stats are no doubt a barometer in a series of such championship proportions, but, ultimately, the intangibles are what will discern whether the Firebirds can right the wrongs of last season’s outcome, or if Hershey can author the AHL’s first back-to-back championships since the Bears 10th and 11th league titles earned in 2009 and ’10, respectively.

Premier goaltending and exacting Special Teams will dictate the numbers of these Finals, but, between the lines, the incalculables of Want, Need, Heart and Finish will identify the victor.

While the discussion was broached that the noise and news of Bylsma’s promotion could have served as a distraction to a CV title run, the result has been anything but. Rather, it has even further galvanized a roster that, whether they’ll admit as much or not, has wanted a crack at this series all season long.

Last year’s near-hit will become this year’s parade across desert sands, and while the ‘Birds will see an opponent unlike any other in their dominating postseason parade, Coachella Valley’s gaudy 10-2 playoff mark to-date will find further purchase in days and weeks ahead, and Dan Bylsma will head yonder Northwest with streamers and confetti in his wake.

Prediction: Firebirds in five