AHL Morning Skate: June 8, 2023

P2-Coachella Valley Firebirds vs. A2-Hershey Bears
Game 1 – Tonight, 10:00 ET, , NBC Sports Washington

Game 1 – Thu., June 8 – Hershey at Coachella Valley, 10:00
Game 2 – Sat., June 10 – Hershey at Coachella Valley, 10:00
Game 3 – Tue., June 13 – Coachella Valley at Hershey, 7:00
Game 4 – Thu., June 15 – Coachella Valley at Hershey, 7:00
*Game 5 – Sat., June 17 – Coachella Valley at Hershey, 7:00
*Game 6 – Mon., June 19 – Hershey at Coachella Valley, 10:00
*Game 7 – Wed., June 21 – Hershey at Coachella Valley, 10:00
*if necessary… All times Eastern

The 2023 Calder Cup Finals open tonight at Acrisure Arena, the first time in the league’s history that a championship game has been played in California... The Western Conference champion Coachella Valley Firebirds, in their first year of play, take on the Eastern Conference champion Hershey Bears, who are making their 24th appearance in the Finals and seeking their 12th Calder Cup... After playing 19 games through four rounds to reach the Finals, Coachella Valley boasts the top five scorers in the league this postseason: Kole Lind (7-16-23), Max McCormick (12-10-22), Cameron Hughes (0-17-17), Alexander True (6-10-16) and Ryker Evans (3-13-16)... Joey Daccord (12-7, 2.37, .924) has gone the distance in net for the Firebirds... Andrew Poturalski (2-4-6) is bidding to become just the fifth player in AHL history to win a Calder Cup with three different teams; he won with Charlotte in 2019 and Chicago in 2022... Aliaksei Protas (5-7-12) leads Hershey in scoring through 13 playoff games... Hunter Shepard (10-3, 1.85, .929) is coming off a series-clinching shutout in Game 6 of the conference finals against Rochester... Sam Anas (3-7-10) has reached the Calder Cup Finals for the second straight spring after helping Springfield to the title series in 2022... Hershey is 6-0 on the road this postseason, outscoring their hosts by a 22-8 margin... This series marks the third time that Firebirds head coach Dan Bylsma and Bears head coach Todd Nelson have gone head-to-head in the Calder Cup Finals; they faced off as players in the 1994 Finals between the Portland Pirates and Moncton Hawks, and as assistant coaches in 2008 between the Chicago Wolves and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins... Tonight is the Bears’ first visit to California since Feb. 7, 1968, an 8-2 loss to the San Diego Gulls as part of an interlocking schedule between the AHL and the Western Hockey League... Prior to tonight, the farthest west a Calder Cup Finals game had been held was Cedar Park, Texas.

After a day in the air, the Hershey Bears were back on the ice.

Once the Bears got word early Tuesday morning that they would be facing Coachella Valley in the Calder Cup Finals, they had a travel itinerary in place, featuring a cross-country charter flight to California. Head coach Todd Nelson joked at practice this week that his club had graduated to flights following three playoff rounds of bus travel in the more geographically compact Eastern Conference.

After settling in, they took their first spin at Acrisure Arena on Wednesday afternoon, and Nelson liked what he saw.

“It was good,” Nelson told reporters afterward. “We had good energy. We just got them up and down the ice. Just did some wall work just to see how the boards were and that. I thought the guys had really good energy, but it was a long day [Tuesday], that’s for sure.”

Nelson has had several busy days since the Bears advanced past Rochester last Friday night. Not knowing whether his team would be facing the Firebirds or Milwaukee, they had to do pre-scout work on both teams.

“It’s kind of like cramming for a test,” Nelson said, “trying to figure out how the other team plays. We did our homework. They’re doing theirs. You don’t know their tendencies, but we do know that we’re playing a very good hockey team and a well-coached one at that.

“I don’t really see any holes in their personnel. They’re a deep hockey team just like we are, and so it doesn’t matter what line they throw out there. They get contributions from everybody there. Their defense joins the rush, and they play a fast system. It’s going to be a big challenge for our hockey team.”

Said Bears defenseman Aaron Ness, “They’ve got a heck of a hockey team over there top to bottom. Great goaltending, great coaching staff. It’s a heck of an organization, and we know that it’s going to be really hard games and a really hard matchup. It’s another opportunity for us to show we can do.”

The Firebirds do bear several similarities to the Americans, who fell to Hershey in six games in the conference finals. They possess that active defense corps, they’re fast, and they’re dangerous off the transition as well.

“We’ve got to make sure we're playing above the puck like we talked about [against Rochester] and playing stingy defense,” Nelson added.

“It’s just gonna be a lot of fun,” Nelson said, “and I can’t express more than just enjoy the moment.”

Playing for a Calder Cup has become something of a tradition for Firebirds forward Andrew Poturalski.

The veteran playmaker won his first Calder Cup back in 2019 with Charlotte. He was back last season to captain Chicago to another title. Now he could add a third Calder Cup ring to his growing collection this time with the Firebirds.

“We cannot be more excited to be out here,” Poturalski told reporters following practice Wednesday. “The support from the Valley has been incredible. This first year has been so fun, and to be in this position we’re super-lucky. We’ve worked hard for it, and we’re going to be ready for the challenge.”

Poturalski returned for Game 3 of the team’s Pacific Division final series against Calgary after being out of the lineup for nearly four months following surgery for a lower-body injury, but he has been through these long playoff runs before. Coachella Valley has had to eliminate Tucson, Colorado, Calgary and Milwaukee to reach this point.

“I’d say we’re battle-tested,” Poturalski said. “We’ve survived four elimination games. I think that that definitely goes a long way. The playoffs are just about ups and downs. It’s a roller coaster. Everything’s not going to go your way. Every game’s not going to go your way.”

Firebirds head coach Dan Bylsma is four wins away from the Calder Cup once again. He was a finalist as a player in 1994 with Moncton and was an assistant coach when Wilkes-Barre/Scranton reached this stage in 2008. Since then he has guided a Stanley Cup championship with Pittsburgh in 2009, led the United States in the 2014 Winter Olympics, and served three times as an assistant coach at the IIHF World Championship.

“It’s something you work for all year,” Bylsma said. “It’s something you try to build all year for, and we’ve gotten the opportunity to do it. It’s the best time of year to be playing hockey.”

Bylsma is also quite aware of the juxtaposition of his expansion Firebirds meeting the AHL’s senior-most franchise. Hershey entered what was then the International-American Hockey League as a new franchise in 1938. The Firebirds, meanwhile, played their first game eight months ago.

“It kind of feels like that’s how it should be,” Bylsma continued. “We’re a new organization… The Hershey Bears, all the history they have, the championships they’ve won — it kind of feels like how it was meant to be.”

The AHL has announced the on-ice officials selected to work the 2023 Calder Cup Finals.

The referees are Cody Beach (1st Calder Cup Finals), Justin Kea (1st), Morgan MacPhee (1st), Carter Sandlak (2nd) and Brandon Schrader (1st). Linespeople for the series will be Mitchell Hunt (2nd), Ryan Jackson (1st), Justin Johnson (2nd), Dan Kelly (1st) and Joe Mahon (1st).

― with files from Patrick Williams

In Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night, three-time AHL All-Star Jonathan Marchessault tallied two goals and an assist, Brett Howden scored twice and Mike Amadio added a goal and an assist in Vegas’s 7-2 win over Florida... Adin Hill stopped 29 shots in the victory... Alex Lyon, a Calder Cup champion with the Chicago Wolves last season, made his Stanley Cup Final debut in a relief appearance for the Panthers.

Watch the Calder Cup Playoffs on AHLTV
Don’t miss a second on the road to the 2023 Calder Cup championship. AHLTV features live streaming of every AHL game in high definition on desktop, laptop, tablet and mobile devices, as well as OTT platforms such as Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and Android TV. A subscription is just $29.99 for the entire postseason, or just $8.99 for a day pass. Visit AHLTV.com for details.