American Hockey League

Finals notebook: Firebirds, Bears know series is far from over

📝 by Patrick Williams

Game 1 – COACHELLA VALLEY 5, Hershey 0
Game 2 – Saturday at Coachella Valley, 10:00
Game 3 – Tuesday at Hershey, 7:00
Game 4 – Thursday at Hershey, 7:00
*Game 5 – June 17 at Hershey, 7:00
*Game 6 – June 19 at Coachella Valley, 10:00
*Game 7 – June 21 at Coachella Valley, 10:00
*if necessary… All times Eastern

PALM DESERT, Calif. … The Coachella Valley Firebirds have wasted no time introducing themselves to their opponents during the Calder Cup Playoffs.

“Seeing this team for the first time and knowing we were playing a good team we just wanted to come out and show them what Firebird hockey was,” head coach Dan Bylsma said after last night’s Game 1 victory over the Hershey Bears to open the Calder Cup Finals.

Bylsma’s club has made a habit out of dominant starts in each of their five Calder Cup Playoff series. They have won all five Game 1’s, outscoring their opponents by a combined 28-10.

“Playing fast, playing aggressive, playing to the offensive zone, that’s when we’re good,” Bylsma continued. “That’s what we’ve been able to do every series that we’ve started. [Hershey] can minimize your time and space with their size and skill, and we’re trying to minimize their size and skill with our speed and our puck play, and that’s going to be a battle that plays out through the [rest of the series].”

Conversely, the Firebirds now must guard against a Game 2 letdown Saturday night. They are 1-3 in Game 2 action so far, and they face as many as three games in Hershey when the series continues next week. Bylsma is keenly aware of that.

Moreover, after a 5-1 home loss in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Rochester, the Bears went on to win four of the next five games.

“We can’t let the scoreboard and the success that we had in Game 1 dictate how we’re going to come out Game 2,” Bylsma said.

Firebirds forward Andrew Poturalski already has won the Calder Cup twice. Both times, his team lost Game 1 of the Finals, then rallied to win four straight. He knows that Coachella Valley can expect a strong response from the Bears on Saturday.

“A 2-0 series is a lot different than a 1-1,” Poturalski said.

Said goaltender Joey Daccord after recording his second shutout this postseason, “I think we’re happy with how we played and we’ll enjoy [it]. But it’s right back to work, and I think we all expect that they’re going to bring a better game next game. They’re down, so they’re going to be desperate, and we need to match that desperation.”

Hershey head coach Todd Nelson had a wry response in his Game 1 post-game press conference.

“The positive thing is they haven’t seen the Hershey Bears yet,” Nelson quipped. “I think they played a good game but also our team has to be a lot better, and we can be.”

The Bears have been down before. But they have shown a knack for learning from mistakes and correcting them quickly. The Bears struggled badly with Rochester’s speed and transition in Game 1 of the conference finals, only to shut out the Amerks the following game. They had some of the same issues with the Firebirds last night.

After Coachella Valley broke the game open with goals 38 seconds apart midway through the third period, Nelson said that he considered the idea of pulling starter Hunter Shepard. He had gone to back-up Zach Fucale in a similiar situation in Game 1 against Rochester, but Nelson does not have a particularly quick hook, and when the game quickly settled down, he stuck with Shepard.

“I could have went either way with that call,” Nelson explained.

The Bears know what Game 2 means. They are 3-0 this postseason in games following a loss, including two shutouts by Shepard. Between Nelson’s tactical know-how and a group that is quick to pick up on his adjustments, they have every reason for optimism. Still, going back home down two games to none would leave them in an uncomfortably tight predicament.

“They’re a good hockey team,” Nelson said, “and so if we play sloppy like we did [in Game 1], it’s not going to work out.”

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