That their opponent’s history spans 90 years while their own charts much closer to 90 days did not matter to the Coachella Valley Firebirds on Thursday night.
The host team appeared very much in the present.
Dueling with the Hershey Bears in Game 1 of the Calder Cup Finals at Acrisure Arena, the Firebirds authored a dominating 5-0 victory before a third consecutive sellout home crowd of 10,087 eager and invested fans.
The matchup represented the first-ever meeting between the two teams, and the Coachella Valley win represented the fifth consecutive time in as many playoff series that the Firebirds have captured the opening game.
“Seeing this team for the first time, knowing we’re playing a good team, we wanted to come out and show ‘em what Firebird hockey was -- play fast, play aggressive and play into the offensive zone,” said Firebirds head coach Dan Bylsma. “That’s when we’re good, and that’s what we’ve been able to do in every series that we’ve started. Our challenge now is to get ready to do it for Game 2.”
In a showdown of Old School vs. New School and East vs. West, the league’s freshest team taught the American Hockey’s League oldest franchise a lesson about the power of nascence. As part of their improbable debut season of success, the Firebirds were simply the more skilled team on Thursday. In terms of speed, Coachella Valley flew around the Bears, blowing Hershey kisses all night long.
“We have to straighten out some things,” said Bears head coach Todd Nelson. “We made some really bad defensive reads tonight, and against a team like this, they capitalize on their opportunities. The (Firebirds) scored some really nice goals -- looks like nothing is going on, all of a sudden there’s a turnover and, bang, it’s in the net.”
Coachella Valley got the scoring underway early on the series’ first power play, taking a 1-0 edge on a Tye Kartye rocket from the top of the left circle past the glove side of Bears netminder Hunter Shepard at 9:02 of the opening salvo.
After twin roughing penalties on Coachella Valley’s Jimmy Schuldt and the Bears’ Riley Sutter, the ‘Birds flew around with ease on the 4-on-4, finding crescendo with a Ville Petman shot from the point past Shepard’s glove side just under seven minutes into the second period to put the hosts up 2-0.
Early in the third, seemingly working with Firebirds’ wings, Andrew Poturalski gave Coachella Valley a 3-0 edge after taking a drop pass from winger Kole Lind and literally flying above the ice with a mid-air wrister past Shepard’s glove.
The offensive output was complimented by a 25-save shutout from Joey Daccord.
“What I saw tonight was not necessarily them (Hershey), I think it was more us,” Daccord said. “We played so well tonight, top to bottom. A solid team game and I think we stuck to our game plan really well. The guys were so good tonight, blocking shots and making my life pretty easy.”
As Coachella Valley piled on the dominance, further final period goals for the host team came 38 seconds apart, compliments of Jesper Froden and Alexander True, respectively.
Coachella Valley winger Kole Lind added a trio of assists in the win as did defenseman Ryker Evans.
While the Firebirds and Bears had never before dropped puck, the two teams weren’t without some familiarity. Both head coaches played against each other in the 1994 Calder Cup Finals (won in six games by Nelson’s Portland Pirates) and then later coached against one another as opposing assistants (won in six games by Nelson’s Chicago Wolves) in the 2008 Cup.
Not that the Firebirds’ frontman admitted to any motivation from the previous Cup defeats.
“Not any at all,” Bylsma said. “Nelly is a good coach; he’s been a good coach in a lotta’ different places and been doing it for a long time. I’ve known him from playing days, and he was a Grand Rapids Griffin, near my hometown. I’ve spent a lot of summers playing hockey with Nelly and playing some golf, and I think part of the Hershey Bears being a good hockey team is Nelly and his coaching.”
The Bears, founded in 1932 before joining the AHL in 1938, are the league’s all-time leaders in both conference titles (24) and Calder Cups (11). Since its first championship in 1946-47, Hershey has won at least one Cup in every ensuing decade, except for the 2020’s. The Bears' last title came in the 2009-10 season.
As for more recent Cups, Coachella Valley’s Poturalski has won the past two of them -- in 2019 with the Charlotte Checkers and in 2022 with the Chicago Wolves (no Cups were played in 2020-21 due to Covid-19). While the standout center was enthused about the opening effort, he cautioned about getting overly enthused about a lone outcome.
“You’re playing a team for the first time, you want to establish yourself and make a good first impression,” said Poturalski. “I think we did that, but at the end of the day it’s one game. In my past two (Calder Cup) experiences, I’ve lost Game 1, so I know what it’s like. You have to win four to raise the Cup, so we’ve gotta’ be ready to go (on Saturday). A 2-0 series is a lot different than 1-1. The next game is huge, and we definitely expect pushback from them.”
Firebirds, 1-0: The Firebirds wasted little time capitalizing on the opening power play of the series, with Tye Kartye putting a low laser past the glove side of Hunter Shepard. Kole Lind was credited with the assist.
Firebirds, 2-0: Playing 4-on-4 hockey, Ville Petman put the hosts up by a pair at the 6:54 mark of the second period. Lind recorded the assist.
Firebirds, 3-0: Less than two minutes into the final period, Andrew Poturalski gave the Firebirds a 3-0 edge, again working Shepard’s glove side. Any guesses on the assist? Yep, No. 3 for Kole Lind.
Firebirds, 4-0: More Poturalski. At the midway stage of the third period, Poturalski glided a perfect pass from right-to-left and Jesper Froden slammed a slapper past Shepard’s right pad.
Firebirds, 5-0: Alexander True gets in on the action a mere 38 seconds later, taking a behind the net backhand pass from Max McCormick and going top-shelf past Shepard’s glove side.
Players of the game
Coachella Valley goalkeeper Joey Daccord wasn’t tested often in the series opener, but stopped all 25 shots to earn a solid shutout. A breakaway save on the Bears’ Joe Snively in the game’s opening minutes set a game tone en route to Daccord’s second shutout of the postseason and first since the ‘Birds’ 5-0 victory over the Colorado Eagles on May 5. As with much of the season, his stickwork was as solid as his net-work, as Daccord was continually, and successfully, proactive in assisting his defenders with the puck throughout the night.
Firebirds’ goaltending coach Colin Zulianello also deserves a nod, as his job isn’t simply prepping Firebirds’ goalies, but also scouting and prepping Coachella Valley shooters for tendencies of opposing netminders. Provided the Firebirds’ four goals to Shepard’s glove side, it seemed that Zulianello no doubt aced his homework on the Bears’ netminder.
Calder Cup schedule
Both teams return to Acrisure Arena for Game 2 at 7 p.m. Saturday night. Here's the rest of the schedule:
Game 2: Sat., June 10 – Hershey at Coachella Valley, 7 pm PT
Game 3: Tue., June 13 – Coachella Valley at Hershey, 4 pm PT
Game 4: Thu., June 15 – Coachella Valley at Hershey, 4 pm PT
Game 5: Sat., June 17 – Coachella Valley at Hershey, 4 pm PT *
Game 6: Mon., June 19 – Hershey at Coachella Valley, 7 pm PT *
Game 7: Wed., June 21 – Hershey at Coachella Valley, 7 pm PT *
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Calder Cup Finals: Coachella Valley Firebirds shut out Hershey Bears in Game 1